TARQUI, Ecuador – Despite its candidate not voting, a big winner in Ecuador’s presidential election on Sunday was clear before the first vote was cast: the nation’s long-marginalized indigenous movement.
The indigenous party and its allies shook the nation in the first round of elections in February, won half of all states, became the second largest presence in Congress and changed the agenda of the finalists in Sunday’s presidential competition, the leftist Andrés Arauz and the conservative Guillermo Lasso.
“Ecuadorian politics will never be the same,” said Farith Simon, an Ecuadorian law professor and columnist. “There is still racism, but there is also an affirmation of the value of indigenous culture, of pride in its national role.”
Mr Arauz and Mr Lasso are keen to bring indigenous voters to justice and are aware of the need to work with the new powerful indigenous bloc in Congress. They have revised their messages and shifted competition away from the polarizing socialist-conservative base that has defined national politics for years. Instead, debates are emerging about the deep-seated inequality of Ecuador and an economic model based on the export of oil and metals extracted from indigenous countries.
Both candidates have promised to take greater environmental protection measures and give indigenous communities a greater say in resource extraction. 66-year-old banker Lasso has vowed to improve economic opportunities for indigenous peoples, who, despite decades of progress, lag well behind national averages for access to education, health care and jobs.
The 36-year-old economist Arauz, who led the first round of elections, has promised to lead Ecuador as a true “plurinational” country in recognition of its 15 indigenous nations. Though largely symbolic, the designation has been sought for decades by the country’s indigenous party, Pachakutik, as a strong recognition of their people’s central place in Ecuador.
Pachakutik’s rise to the national stage has not only caught the attention of the country’s indigenous minority, but has also raised deeper identity issues for the entire electorate. Although only 8 percent of Ecuadorians identified themselves as indigenous people in the last census, a large proportion of the population is ethnically mixed.
“This is a difficult conversation for us as a nation, but there is no going back,” said Mr Simon.
The man most responsible for the political change was environmental activist Yaku Pérez, the Pachakutik presidential candidate in the first round of elections in February.
Pérez, 52, narrowly missed the runoff election, but greatly expanded Pachakutik’s historic single-digit appeal by advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ equality and efforts to combat climate change. Mr Pérez also supported abortion rights and same-sex marriages, which created tension in his socially conservative indigenous constituency.
“Pérez had a tremendous ability to open up his horizons and discourse to include topics that didn’t exist,” said Alberto Acosta, a former Pachakutik presidential candidate.
The rise of Mr Pérez is part of a larger generation change in the left movements in Latin America. Driven in part by social media and political protests in the United States, where most Latin American nations have large diasporas, younger left-wing politicians are prioritizing environmental, gender, and minority issues over their mentors’ Marxist doctrine.
In neighboring Peru, 40-year-old Verónika Mendoza is one of the top candidates in Sunday’s presidential election and promises to give land titles to indigenous communities and protect the environment. In Bolivia, 34-year-old indigenous leader Eva Copa recently won a mayor’s race in El Alto, a melting pot town known as a bell tower.
This new generation of leaders is moving beyond the traditional left and right gap and questioning their country’s historic reliance on large mining, oil and agribusiness projects for economic growth, said Carwil Bjork-James, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee .
“These are big continental questions that the indigenous movements have been asking for a long time,” said Bjork-James. “Asking these questions politically is a new level.”
Such a framework is short-sighted, say their rivals. South American nations have no choice but to rely on income from raw materials to recover from the pandemic. And only through economic development, it is said, can inequalities be fully addressed.
In Ecuador, Mr Pérez managed to win nearly 20 percent of the vote in February, but his party and its allies rose from nine to 43 congressional seats in the elections and became kingmakers in the country’s broken 137-seat legislature.
The campaign initially focused on the legacy of Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s longest-serving democratic president. He had lifted millions out of poverty during a raw materials boom in the 2000s, but his authoritarian style and the corruption allegations that haunted him had bitterly divided the nation.
Mr Correa, who stepped down in 2017, selected Mr Arauz to represent his leftist movement this year and catapulted the 36-year-old to the top of the polls despite his limited experience and national recognition. Mr Lasso focused his early campaign message on fears that Mr Correa would continue to exert influence.
However, the results of the first round showed that “a large part of the population does not want to be drawn into this conflict between the supporters and opponents of Correa, which reduces the problems of Ecuadorians to a binary vision,” said former candidate Acosta.
Pachakutik’s electoral success this year stems from a wave of national protests in October 2019 when the indigenous movement marched into the capital, Quito, to demand the lifting of a deeply unpopular cut in gasoline subsidies. The protests turned violent, killing at least eight people, but the government withdrew the subsidy cut after 12 days of unrest.
“We have shown the country that the indigenous peoples are looking for a transformation of this dominant system that serves only the wealthiest,” said Diocelinda Iza, a leader of the Kichwa Nation in central Cotopaxi Province.
The life of Mr Pérez, the presidential candidate, embodies the difficulties of the indigenous movement. He was born in a high Andean valley in southern Ecuador to a family of impoverished farmers. His father was Kichwa, his mother Kañari.
His parents worked on the estate of a local landowner with no payment for living on his property, a rural establishment that has changed little since the colonial days.
Since childhood, Mr Pérez said he remembered the seemingly endless work in the fields, the hunger pangs and the humiliation he felt at school when his mother came to parents’ meetings in traditional skirts.
“I was very ashamed to be local, to come from the field, to be a farmer, to have a father together,” said Pérez in an interview in March. In order to be successful in school, he said: “In the end I made myself white, colonized myself and rejected our identity.”
Mr. Pérez studied at a local university, practiced law and got involved in politics through local associations that defended municipal water rights. He rose to become governor of the Ecuadorian region of Azuay, the fifth most populous in the country, before quitting running for president.
Its story has resonated with other indigenous peoples, many of whom see today’s political endeavors in the context of the five centuries since the colonial conquest of Ecuador.
“We are not campaigning for one person,” said an indigenous leader, Luz Namicela Contento, “but for a political project.”
Jose María León Cabrera reported from Tarqui, Ecuador, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Moscow. Mitra Taj contributed to coverage from Lima, Peru.