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ECUADOR: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Kathryn B. Sanderson*

Ecuador has been the unfortunate recipient of the legacy of many inherent and institutionalized political, social, and economic problems. The prevalence of authoritarianism and personalism, inherited from the Spanish imperialists, has created an environment that tends to encourage corruption and abuse of power in government. Democracy's lack of consolidation has negatively affected its efficiency in the Andean nation, which tends to use new constitutions as tools to stabilize the country and has therefore had more than eighty governments and almost twenty different constitutions since gaining independence. The latest constitution was written in 1998, less than two years ago, only nineteen years after the last constitution. Representative government has not been able to effect needed reforms, and in comparison with the military governments of the 1960's and 1970's, it seems to be inferior in its ability to run a politically stable and economically successful nation. The disorganization of the party system, with its many small parties and their tendencies to join together or to split into different factions, does not help Ecuador in its attempt to create a constructive political culture. Finally, the idiosyncratic divisions among government branches prevents a beneficial division of power, allowing the legislative branch to interpret the constitutionality of its own laws and the executive to extend his power beyond what it was intended to be.

Regional and class divisions and conflicts have been a feature of Ecuadorian society for centuries. The conservative, agrarian sierra, where the country's capitol of Quito is located, has been in conflict with the liberal, tropical coast and the city of Guayaquil since the arrival of the Spaniards. The rivalry of the regions over government attention and support as well as economic benefits is an important issue in politics and in everyday life in the nation.

A striking division between socioeconomic classes makes its painful presence known in Ecuador as well as in the other Andean nations. The Quechua-speaking peasantry, who still try to make their living off of the land and through small efforts at selling their crafts in the towns, contrast sharply with the mestizo, Spanish-speaking elite who form the base of the country's commercial activity.

Economic troubles are a final element of the bleak current situation in Ecuador and of its lack of potential for growth and stabilization in the near future. After the world economic slowdown of the late 1970s and 1980s, the country's over-reliance on the oil export business caused it to follow the paths of many of its neighbors to the brink of crisis. In contrast with some of the other South American nations, however, Ecuador has been comparatively slow to develop and to industrialize, and its economy is now below the level even of Peru, its struggling southern neighbor.

The volatility of the Ecuadorian political situation may be observed through an overview of significant government events in the past fifty years. From 1948-1962, the country enjoyed exceptional stability, with several successive and planned elections and fully completed presidential terms. This period of stability was brought to a close with a coup in 1963, which would preclude the presence of legitimate elections for five years. When elections did resume in 1968, their existence was vulnerable, and was eliminated again in 1972 after another coup seized power away from the authoritarian president, Velasco Ibarra. The junta ruled by decree until 1976, when a four-man coalition took power and promised elections and a new constitution by 1979. This promise was kept, and congressional and presidential elections resumed in early 1979. The 1980s brought economic difficulties and political instability, but successful elections were held throughout the decade. A sort of governmental coup illegally removed the president from office in 1997, ending a long stretch of democratic behavior and questioning the disillusioned people's commitment to the regime. A new constitution was enacted along with new elections in 1998, but the future of democratic government in Ecuador is threatened. The recent military coup that ousted President Jamil Mahuad in January of 2000 is an obvious danger sign (Coup in Ecuador 1997).

The electoral system in Ecuador is based on a unicameral Chamber of National Representatives, which consists of twelve national deputies elected on a proportional representation list system and up to 113 provincial deputies, who are elected in multi-member constituencies and whose number is dependent on population. This system was instated in 1979, and was a change from the previous bicameral system. Both systems have been presidential in nature as opposed to parliamentary, and both have had an independent judiciary. Elections are monitored in Ecuador by the TSE, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, as well as by other domestic groups and by international observers. The 1987 Law of Elections made voting mandatory for all able and eligible citizens.

The succession of Ecuadorian presidents since the new constitution of 1979 sheds some light on the chaotic political situation of the country. From 1979-1981, Jaime Roldos Aguilera was in control, but his death cut short his presidential term, bringing to office his vice-president, Oswaldo Hurtado of the Christian Democratic Party. Febres Cordero of the Social Christian Party took power in 1984, marking a transfer of control from the political left to the right. This power was shifted back, and farther to the left in 1988, when Rodrigo Borja Cevallos of the Democratic Left came into office. Another reversal came in 1992, when Sixto Durán Ballén of the Republican Unity Party took power. Abdala Bucaram of the personalist Rodolsista Party won the 1996 presidential election, but lost all of his support and popularity and was removed from power and replaced with the president of Congress. This recent shifting in power among Conservative, Liberal and personalist parties is representative of the general situation of politics in Ecuador, which is also reflected in the changes in power among groups in the legislature.

After an initial span of dominance of the Conservative Party, the PC, from 1855-1895, the Liberals (the PLR) took power until 1945, followed by a sharing of power among the two traditional parties. However, since the military coups in 1963 and 1972, a variety of small parties and factions have broken into the concrete dominance of the PC and the PLR and the country has entered into a much more unpredictable system.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963-2000

Original Parties, from 1950-1962, still continuing through 2000

352-Conservative Party of Ecuador --PC (a.k.a. PCE). The Conservative Party, which was officially started in 1855, has experienced periods of both total dominance and limited power. Although it has not won more than twenty percent of the seats in Congress since the end of the 1960s, and has garnered only single-digit percentages of seats in the 1990s, the party is still an entrenched power in Ecuadorian Politics and is very unlikely to disappear in the near future. Their current weakness may be partially explained by universal suffrage, which takes power away from the landholders, and by the departure of their more leftist wing, Popular Democracy. PC counts among its supporters the large landholders, but also the peasants of its regional stronghold, which is Quito and the mountains. The conservatives represent cooperation between church and state, which was a salient issue in the past, as well as centralized government and economic liberalization (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991).

353- Liberal Party of Ecuador --PLR (a.k.a. PLRE). The Liberal Party, or the Radical Liberal Party as it is commonly known, was formed in the late 19th century. Like the Conservative Party, its historical enemy, the PLR has enjoyed periods of complete domination, but these eras are now far in the past. After being a main contender for Congressional seats before the coups, the PLR has undergone a great deal of splits and realignments which have overly divided its sources of support. Not winning more than 6 percent of the seats since 1979, the party has counted on its long history and its institutionalization for survival. The PLR has traditionally relied on the armed forces, commerce, the coast, and secular interests for support (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991).

354- Socialist Party of Ecuador --PSE. The Socialist Party, or the PSE, was among the five parties examined by the original ICPP project. Founded in 1926, this party has consisted of a group of intellectuals, who are only influential in elections through coalitions with other parties. However, they have contributed to policymaking in many areas, and have in this way put their knowledge and theories to use. Although their attitudes towards communism have fluctuated, the PSE has given birth to two other collectivist organizations, the PCE (The Communist Party) and the PSR (The Revolutionary Socialist Party). Hovering around the ten percent mark for legislative seats in the 1950s and 1960s, the PSE has rarely gained more than a few seats in Congress since then (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991).

355- Concentration of Popular Forces-- CFP. The fourth and final member of the ICPP group of Ecuadorian Parties that has survived into the 21st century is the CFP, or the Concentration of Popular Forces. Originally organized in the 1940s as a populist group for Guayaquil caudillo Carlos Moreno, the CFP found new leadership under Bucaram in the early 1970s, but experienced a blow when Bucaram was prevented from rising to power. After a brief alliance with Popular Democracy to bring Roldos Aguilera to the presidency, a rift developed in the party and it has fallen from power. The party will most likely not endure, since it has been based on the populist promises of past leaders (Ameringer).

New Parties formed after 1962 and continuing to 2000

358- Popular Democracy--DP

3516-Democratic Christian Party--PDC. The origins of Popular Democracy date from the early 1960s and the Christian Democratic Party. Over its short lifetime, DP has been allied with such diverse groups as a progressive wing of the PC and the CFP. Winning from five to ten percent of the seats in Congress throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, DP has controlled a surprising twenty-six percent of the legislature since the recent 1998 elections. If it can succeed in preserving and marketing its center-left ideology, Popular Democracy promises to be a major power in the new millennium, even after its recent setback in the 2000 election (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991; Voters‚ Snub to Mahuad 2000).

3510-Radical Alfarista Front--FRA. The Radical Alfarist Front was established in 1972 by a former liberal, Abdón Calderón Munoz, who participated in the 1978 presidential race. He was assassinated soon after, and was succeeded by his daughter as the leader of the party. The FRA's representation in Congress hovered around eight percent during the early to mid-1980's, but it dwindled during the 1990s and the future for the FRA does not look bright. With the sympathy vote dissipated after Munoz's death, the FRA's populist and centrist ideology has been unable to command a strong following in more than a few scattered coastal regions.

3511-Democratic Left--ID. In 1968, a group of young liberals broke from the PLR and competed in congressional elections as the Democratic Left, or the ID. Winning as much as thirty-four percent of the congressional seats and never less than five percent since 1979, the ID has established its strong presence on the political scene. Doctrinal concerns are important to this well-organized, professional party, which is a member of Socialist International and is committed to economic reform (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991).

359-Broad Leftist Front--FADI. The Broad Leftist Front, FADI, was established as an electoral alliance in the late 1970s, bringing together some of the remnants of the Communist Party and of the Christian Democratic Party. It has occasionally also been allied with the PSR as well as the MPD, the electoral branch of the PCMLE, under the name of the FIU (The United Leftist Front). The MPD, also known as the movement for popular democracy, has had considerable success on its own, winning a small portion of the seats in almost every election since 1979. FADI has not won a significant amount of seats since its limited success in the mid-1980s, but it is not evident that the organization has failed. The party will most likely continue to pursue its goal of creating a united Marxist organization (Ameringer, 1992).

3521-Social Christian Party--PSC. Although it was always a minor player in the political arena during the original ICPP project, the Ecuadorian Social Christian Party has been around for half of a century and has recently risen to become a major contender for power in Congress and the presidency. Since the mid-1980s, the PSC has won at least twenty percent of the seats in Congress in every election, including the most recent congressional election in May of 2000. The PSC has on occasion been organized with the goal of putting their candidate into the presidency, such as in the 1950s and 1960s when the party was essentially an electoral vehicle for Camilo Ponce Enriquez, or in 1978, when it concentrated on backing Sixto Durán Ballén. However, its prevailing interest in modernizing the business sector and in traditionally conservative ideas during a time of economic difficulty has propelled the PSC into the forefront of Ecuadorian politics and assured it a large portion of the legislative power (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991; Social Christian Party, 1994).

Original Parties from 1950-1962 terminating before 2000

351-National Velasquista Party, or National Velasquista Front--PNV/FNV. The only one of the five parties of the original ICPP project that has not survived into modern times is the National Velasquista Party (PNV), or the National Velasquista Federation. Begun in 1952, the party enjoyed considerable success in the 1950s and 1960s, and oscillated between five and fifty percent of seats. However, because the party depended upon the personalist techniques of Velasco Ibarra for its success, the loyalty of its supporters disintegrated once Ibarra disappeared from the political scene. It won only a single seat between 1979 and 1984. An outspoken party critic, Ibarra won five nonconsecutive presidential elections, but was unable to create a lasting political organization (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991).

New Parties formed after 1962 but terminating before 2000

356--Ecuadorian Revolutionary Popular Action - APRE. Since the 1960s, the APRE has experiences a few brief periods of activity. Under the initial leadership of Carlos Guevara Moreno, the APRE split from the CFP, but became obsolete when Moreno retired. The party was reorganized in the 1970s and again in the 1980s, but besides having participated as a minor member in a few coalitions, the APRE has had no political power in decades.

357--Democratic Institutionalist Coalition - CID. Former Liberal Otto Arosemena Gomez formed the CID in 1965 and later used it as an electoral vehicle to win the presidency. However, the Coalition has not been able to survive since Arosemena's death in the 1980s, although they have attempted to back other candidates (Ameringer, 1992).

3513--People, Change, and Democracy--PCD. Jaime Roldos Aguielera's wife, Martha, founded the PCD in the early 1980s after the CFP broke apart in an effort to perpetuate the power of the Roldosistas. However, the PCD's support dropped down to virtually nil with the emergence of the PRE, which monopolized the support of the Roldosistas, and eventually died when Aguilera's brother resigned from politics (Ameringer, 1992).

3514--Communist Party--PCE. The Communist Party finds its origins in the 1950s in Ecuador. After spending several decades without garnering much support from the electorate, the PCE and the PCMLE (a faction of the organization that split off in the 1970s due to a disagreement about maintaining pure Marxist-Leninist ideology) joined the ranks of the Broad Leftist Front, FADI, in 1978. It has not won a significant amount of seats on its own since the 1963 coup. Organized labor interests and students formed the original membership of the PCE, which has abandoned its name and ties to communism in the modern environment of hostility to collectivism (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook ,1991).

3515--Democratic Party--PD. A mildly reformist group broke away from the PLR in 1978 to form the PD, but their initial support from the middle class faded away after only a few years when members began to defect from the party (Ameringer, 1992).

3517--National Liberation Party--PLN
3518--Pachakutik-New Country--P-NP
3519-National Revolutionary Party--PNR. Three small but motivated revolutionary parties, the PNR (National Revolutionary Party), the PLN (National Liberation Party), and P-NP (Pachakutik--New Country), and have each enjoyed a brief period of popularity since the early 1980s: PNR in the early 1980s, PLN in the early 1990s, and P-NP in the late 1990s. It looks as if the first two parties have lost support, and it is probable that the last will soon follow in the path of its short-lived examples, although it would be impressive if the Indigenous-based party could suceed in order to empower the long-oppressed Indian majority (Ameringer, 1992; Area Handbook, 1991; Watson 1996).


There are many Ecuadorian parties that have not been included in this analysis, but these largely consist of small groups and factions who have not maintained consistent or significant support in society. This type of organization is a symptom of the general factionalism, weak organization, lack of participation, blurred ideology, need for alliances, populism, and militarism that characterize Ecuador’s modern party politics. Citizens in Ecuador seem to have given up their hope for change, and are disappointed with the performance of democracy in their nation. "Ecuador in the 1990s would retain a fragmented, highly partisan, and frequently opportunistic party system which stubbornly resisted true modernization. The process of maturation still had a long distance to cover. In the meantime, personalistic and traditionalistic manifestations of party leadership remained characteristics certain to endure into the twenty-first century" Ameringer, 1992: 270).

The information on seat percentages contained in this essay may not be completely accurate due to the volatility that is commonly observed in the CNR. "Note: defections by members of Congress are commonplace, resulting in frequent changes in the number of seats held by the various parties" (World Factbook, 1997: 137).

Ameringer, Charles D., ed. Political Parties of the Americas: 1980s to 1990s; Canada, Latin
America, and the West Indies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Coup in Ecuador. The Economist, Feb 15, 1997.
"Ecuador's Endangered Democracy." The New York Times. Jan. 25, 2000.
"Social Christian Party Success in Congressional Elections." BBC Summary of World
Broadcasts: German Press Agency news agency. May 3, 1994.
Riding, Alan. "Democracy and Disappointment in Ecuador." The New York Times, May 15, 1998.
"Voters‚ Snub to Mahuad Party Redraws Political Map." EFE News Services. May 22, 2000.
Watson, Julie. "Ecuador's Indians joining forces to back slate of candidates in national elections:
Indigenous people unite for voting today." The Dallas Morning News. May 19, 1996.
Weil, etc. Area Handbook for Ecuador. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress: 1968, 1973, and 1991.

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp on Party Research, June-August, 2000