By Nicolas Fliess – Published on 05/05/2021
Citizens around the world have responded in different ways to the task of participating in elections during an ongoing pandemic. While these elections offer an opportunity for voters to hold parties accountable for their crisis management, many citizens might feel unsafe to cast a ballot in person. Moreover, parties face difficulties to reach and effectively mobilise voters.
The Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) super election cycle in 2021 – 8 national elections this year – invites us to take a closer look at how the pandemic impacts party mobilisation, turnout and voting patterns. Most of these countries have a considerable part of their electorate residing abroad. High emigration rates and encompassing voter law reforms since the 2000s have produced new voter constituencies: the emigrant voters. In many Latin American countries, political parties are now also present in overseas communities chasing these votes (see for example Bermúdez 2016; Paarlberg 2019; Fliess forthcoming; Umpierrez de Reguero and Dandoy 2021).
In this blog post I take a closer look at the impacts of Covid-19 on elections held abroad. How does the pandemic influence party mobilisation, voter participation, and vote choice overseas? I focus on Ecuador – a LAC frontrunner in granting encompassing electoral rights to its non-resident citizens. On the 7th of February 2021, Ecuadorians abroad were entitled to vote in the presidential and national legislative elections, as well as the Andean parliament elections.
My analysis suggests that while the pandemic has re-configured the setting in which these elections took place, much has actually remained the same. Parties kept being present abroad, and candidates campaigned in person – some of them even across borders. In comparison with previous elections, turnout abroad has continued to decrease but still reached moderate levels. Resident and non-resident citizens continued to largely vote along similar lines in the first round, just like in previous elections. In the run-off, however, the large majority of citizens abroad voted left, while Ecuador gave way to a conservative president gaining office – for the first time since 2006. Participant observations on election days in Barcelona, which hosts almost 10% of the registered emigrant electorate, offered important additional insights into how emigrant voters experience home country elections during the pandemic. Arguably, Ecuador’s rampant health and economic crisis, citizens’ great dissatisfaction with the government, and a highly polarized political climate have mobilised many Ecuadorians inside and outside the country to vote, and campaign during these unusual elections.
The 2021 Ecuadorian presidential elections
The 2021 general elections took place as scheduled, but in the context of a crisis-ridden country. Ecuador is among the countries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic while it is battling with surging corruption cases, and a deep economic crisis that saw a 7.5% reduction in GDP growth last year alone. In December, its president, Lenín Moreno, had the lowest approval ratings in the region.
The elections became a neck-and-neck race between Guillermo Lasso (Alianza CREO-PSC), a former banker and a conservative, three-time presidential candidate, and Andrés Arauz (Union por la Esperanza, UNES), a former cabinet member and the political protégé of the leftist ex-president Rafael Correa (2007-2017).
Yaku Peréz, a human rights activist and the leader of the leftist indigenous party Pachakutik, missed the run-off by only 32,115 votes. He claimed voter fraud and encouraged voters to null their votes leading to the highest protest vote share in Ecuador’s history. In the second round, large parts of the electorate, both inside (16.29%) and outside (14.61%) the country, voided their ballots in the polling booth.
Incumbent president, Lenín Moreno (Alianza País, MPAIS), did not run again. Ximena Peña, a sitting MP for the overseas constituency USA/Canada, took his ticket, but she only came 9th in the overall results. In 2020, Rafael Correa, the ex-party leader of MPAIS and Ecuador’s former president was sentenced to prison due to corruption charges following investigations his successor and long-time ally, Lenín Moreno, had initiated once in office. Correa denies all wrongdoing and continues to wield political influence from his self-chosen exile in Belgium. While his prison sentence prevented him from running for public office, he actively campaigned from outside the country throwing all his support behind Arauz, and spearheading Union por la Esperanza (UNES), a political movement Correa helped create last year to re-gain power in Ecuador.
Ecuadorians abroad, and particularly in Europe, have
always been a strong support base for Rafael Correa. During his reign
significantly reduced poverty, boosted infrastructure development, and became
the first Ecuadorian president to promote a strong sending state out-reach – an
agenda that spoke to many Ecuadorians abroad. Amongst other things, he granted
encompassing electoral rights to non-resident citizens, and frequently
addressed Ecuadorians abroad
in public speeches as heroes who had saved the country with their remittances
during the country’s economic crisis.
Ecuadorian elections in Barcelona during the pandemic
Around 6.4% of citizens born in Ecuador reside abroad, of which more than one third live in Spain (United Nations 2019). In Barcelona, 38,989 registered voters – almost 10% of the registered non-resident electorate – were called to vote in the general elections. Despite the pandemic, voting in Barcelona took place in person.
During peak times, Ecuadorians stood in long queues waiting patiently to cast their ballot. Nevertheless, turnout in Barcelona reached 32.73% in the first round, and 37.18% in the second round, outperforming the general diaspora average by around 3.5% and 4.5%, respectively.
While elections held abroad provide an opportunity for emigrants to participate in home country politics, these events also offer a platform for migrants to socialize with their compatriots. Indeed, next to the voting centre in Barcelona I could see people standing in groups, chatting, and laughing. Several food sellers were present at the exit offering traditional Ecuadorian dishes. Families, couples, and groups of friends sticked around to enjoy the afternoon. Some ethnic business companies distributed their cards at the exit, one advertising cheap travel fares to Ecuador.
Some few voters wore sport caps, football jerseys, or Covid-19 face masks with the imprint of the Ecuadorian flag to express their national pride. I also saw several voters who had brought a national flag – which then on occasion was borrowed from others and handed around to take group pictures in front of the voting centre. However, these instances were rather exceptional, the majority of voters refraining from any public expression of patriotism.
In spite of the pandemic, Ecuadorians celebrated the elections as a socio-cultural event, which may have helped keeping a moderate participation level. Additionally, Ecuadorian parties have been actively mobilising emigrant voters in Barcelona and elsewhere.
Party out-reach during the pandemic
Online campaigning has always been a firm component of parties’ cross-border campaigns. The pandemic clearly has further incentivized this campaign style with Zoom meetings, Facebook live streams, WhatsApp groups, and chat canvassing. Nevertheless, in-person events and ‘door-to-door’ campaigns continued to form part of the campaigns abroad in 2021.
In Barcelona, official party branches, as well as affiliated grass-root groups of UNES (Arauz), and CREO (Lasso) campaigned in person on the streets to approach potential voters. Their campaign posters were plastered at strategically important places around the city, including the Ramblas, and the Plaza Espanya. UNES also organized a motorcade dubbed “La Caravana de la Esperanza”.
The Europe, Asia, and Oceania constituency reserves two seats in the national assembly for emigrant candidates. Some of these candidates actively campaigned on-site as well mobilising voters for the legislative and presidential elections alike. Gustavo Mateus Acosta (UNES), who won one of these seats, engaged in door-to-door canvassing in Barcelona, Madrid, and Murcia.
The Alianza Coalición del Migrante also actively campaigned on-site. The coalition had been formed by three political parties and four local (migrant) movements with the specific purpose to win the European constituency. Its registration as a movement, however, was first rejected by the National Election Council (CNE) for not complying with the formal legal requirements. In response, the movement organized protests under the hashtag #MigranteEnLaPapeleta in at least 13 European cities, and in December both candidates, Luis Felipe Tilleria and Claribel Macias, travelled to Ecuador to finalize the registration of their movement in person, and thus to save their candidacy. In February, Luis Felipe Tilleria also came to Barcelona for the official campaign closing attending an in-person lunch with supporters, and potential voters at an Ecuadorian restaurant in the city centre. In contrast, Esther Cuesta (UNES), incumbent MP who was re-elected, did not travel across borders, unlike during her previous campaign, but campaigned in person in her city of residency, Genoa (Italy). Similarly, both candidates of CREO, Manuel Macia Zambrano and Elva Irene Fuentes as well as Aída Quinatoa (Pachakutik) actively campaigned in Madrid, and Milan, respectively – the cities where they reside.
In past elections, Ecuadorian parties have commonly nominated leaders of renown migrant associations as candidates to mobilise more effectively and to gain more visibility abroad (Fliess forthcoming). In the 2021 elections, several parties have pursued a similar strategy. For example, Andrés Moreno (Izquierda Democratica), Sara María Cutiopala Alulema (Izquierda Democratica), and César Demetrio Quilligana Gancino (MPAIS) have all been highly active in associations or grassroot movements at the time of their candidacy.
While in previous elections candidates for the extra-territorial constituency tended to tour the European cities home to large concentrations of voters, the 2021 elections have seen much less international cross-border campaigning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, on-site in-person campaigning has continued alongside increased online canvassing. Candidates have adapted to the restrictions imposed by governments and have, with some notable exceptions, focussed in their physical campaign efforts on the cities in which they reside.
Importantly, the activities of Ecuadorian parties abroad during the pandemic stretch far beyond Europe and parliamentary candidate campaigns alone. The presidential candidate Andrés Arauz flew to the U.S. in February to attend an in-person campaign event in Newark, and to link up with migrant organizations. His opponent, Guillermo Lasso, stayed put but directly addressed voters in Europe in a video message, and had his vice president candidate, Alfredo Borreo, embark on a transnational campaign trail, including places in the U.S.. Emigrant supporters could also join an online live stream of the party’s campaign closing held in Guayaquil (Ecuador) in April. In contrast, Yaku Pérez did not travel abroad but approached emigrant voters in an online campaign clip. Similar to Lasso and Arauz, Pérez also featured a specific online registration tool on his webpage, so that emigrants could join as campaign volunteers from afar.
How did the pandemic influence voting?
The voter participation in the 2021 Ecuadorian presidential elections decreased inside and outside the country in comparison with the previous elections (Figure 1). However, in spite of the galloping health crisis, domestic turnout dropped only by less than 1%. Previously, turnout in Ecuador had steadily increased since 2006. The COVID-19 crisis has, thus, only slightly thwarted this trend. We are only at the very beginning of understanding the political impacts of COVID-19, but a recent analysis of 14 national elections held since March 2020 in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) demonstrates that turnout has decreased in 11 elections by less than 1% to 21%.
In turn, emigrant turnout in 2021 has dropped by around 6% compared to the previous election. The same picture emerges when we look at the 2nd round results. With the exception of two local pilot projects, emigrant voters had to cast their ballot in person. Adopting a long-term perspective, as illustrated in Figure 1 below, voter participation abroad has declined since 2006, the year in which Ecuador introduced external voting for the first time. Hence, while this recent voter drop might be attributed to the pandemic, it also seems to form part of a larger voter abstention trend abroad that has started much earlier. Previous research suggests that host and home country factors, beyond the pandemic, play an essential role in explaining emigrant voter participation (Ciornei and Østergaard-Nielsen 2020).
Nevertheless, parties’ efforts to mobilise emigrant voters might have helped prevent higher abstention rates abroad (see also Burgess and Tyburski 2020). Arguably, Arauz in particular has succeeded to excite a considerable part of the emigrant electorate. In relative terms, Arauz was much more successful among emigrant voters than among domestic voters. In the first round, he secured 44.29% of the votes abroad compared to 32.58% of the votes in Ecuador. In the second round Arauz expanded its lead to 58.53% abroad. In Barcelona, he even won 51.22% in the first round, and 65.40% in the second round. In comparison, Lasso, Pérez, and Peña performed better inside the country than abroad. Clearly, Arauz succeeded to effectively mobilise the pro-Correa voter bloc abroad.
In historical perspective, Rafael Correa (2009, 2013), or Correa-backed candidates – Lenín Moreno in 2017, and now Andrés Arauz in 2021 – always won higher vote shares abroad than inside the country (see Figure 2). With the exception of the 2006 elections – the first one Correa contested as presidential candidate – emigrants have consistently favoured El Correísmo over any alternative option. In contrast, conservative parties have been less successful among emigrants. For example, CREO always performed better among domestic voters, despite having consistently extended the party infrastructure abroad since its founding in 2012. An important exception is the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC), which enjoys a firm voter base abroad. In 2006 and 2017, PSC fielded its own presidential candidate and won both times higher vote shares abroad than inside the country.
The 2021 Ecuadorian general elections offer some valuable insights into how elections abroad can play out in the context of the pandemic. While the voter participation of Ecuadorian emigrants has decreased in comparison to previous years, a mobilised emigrant electorate, as well as the strong presence of political parties in migrant neighbourhoods and online social networks has arguably prevented higher abstention rates. To a large extent, campaigns have continued to take place on-site and in person just like in the previous Ecuadorian elections abroad, yet parties, candidates, local party cells, and grass-root campaign troops have adapted to the challenges of campaigning during the pandemic. In a similar vein, voters, as well as Ecuadorian street food entrepreneurs, have seized on the elections – held as an in-person event – as an opportunity for a socio-cultural celebration among compatriots.
The elections also confirm that Ecuador has a strongly left leaning emigrant electorate, which is closely tied in with the legacy of Correa, who continues to enjoy enormous support abroad until the present day. The vote margin between the second and third placed candidate in the first round –32,115 votes – highlights the important role emigrant votes play and can play in future elections in Ecuador. Challenger parties aiming to gain larger shares abroad will need to start mobilising new voter groups, such as first time voters and 2nd generation migrants.
In the upcoming weeks and months, elections will be held in Peru (presidential, 2nd round), Honduras (presidential and legislative), El Salvador (legislative), and Mexico (legislative) – all elections in which non-resident citizens will have the right to vote. It will be interesting to see how emigrant voters and parties react and adapt to the tasks of participating and mobilising during these exceptional times of the pandemic.
Bermúdez, Anastasia. 2016. International Migration, Transnational Politics and Conflict. The Gendered Experience of Colombian Migrants in Europe. London: Palgrave Mcmillan.
Burgess, Katrina, and Michael D. Tyburski. 2020. “When Parties Go Abroad: Explaining Patterns of Extraterritorial Voting.” Electoral Studies 66: 102169.
Ciornei, Irina, and Eva Østergaard-Nielsen. 2020. “Transnational Turnout. Determinants of Emigrant Voting in Home Country Elections.” Political Geography 78: 102145.
Fliess, Nicolas. Forthcoming. “Campaigning Across Continents: How Latin American Parties Link up with Migrant Associations in Spain.” Comparative Migration Studies. Forthcoming.
Paarlberg, Michael. 2019. “Competing for the Diaspora’s Influence at Home: Party Structure and Transnational Campaign Activity in El Salvador.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45 (4): 539–60.
Umpierrez de Reguero, Sebastián, and Régis Dandoy. 2021. “Should We Go Abroad? The Strategic Entry of Ecuadorian Political Parties in Overseas Electoral Districts.” Representation, 1–18. doi:10.1080/00344893.2021.1902850.
United Nations. 2019. “Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Destination and Origin (United Nations Database, POP/DB/MIG/Stock/Rev.2019).”
Last updated: 05/05/2021
Cite this publication:
Fliess, Nicolas (2021). Party mobilisation and voting abroad during the Pandemic: The 2021 Ecuadorian Elections. MIGRADEMO Blog posts. Available at: https://migrademo.eu/party-mobilisation-and-voting-abroad-during-the-pandemic:-the-2021-ecuadorian-elections/