28 January 2020

Understanding Recall Functioning in Ecuador

Why are recall referendums increasingly used? An article for International Political Science Review explains this frequency on the grounds of three sets of variables: growing citizen dissatisfaction, institutional design, and the activity of parties using the mechanism against their rivals. As a theoretical novelty, it proposes an additional variable: the role of electoral management bodies (EMBs) in allowing or preventing recall attempts. Interview with coauthor Yanina Welp, Research Associate at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Institute.

Why was it worthwhile to devote an article to recall referendums in Ecuador?

Recall referendums or elections are designed to activate a vote aimed at removing from office or confirming elected authorities before the end of their term. In times of democratic crisis, it has become a quite popular mechanism. In the Andean countries it is one of the most intensively used mechanisms of citizen control and participation, but despite that, recall elections have been practically ignored by scholars until very recently. In previous works I did observe how the mechanism is used as a “party strategy” or party competition (e.g. in Peru). The focus on the Ecuadorian case allowed us to identify the role of electoral management bodies (EMBs) in allowing or preventing recall attempts. 

How does the article contribute to the literature on recall referendums?

It seeks to contribute to the understanding of recall functioning. Building on previous findings, we identify three sets of variables explaining the frequency of recall attempts and votes: first, attitudinal: citizen dissatisfaction; second, institutional: the ease of activation; and third, actor-centred: the role played by political parties as part of their strategies for seeking power. We propose the addition of a fourth, new variable: the role of EMBs in controlling formalities or judging reasons, potentially becoming a controversial actor in cases of low autonomy of the body from the executive. 

Can you tell us more about this role of EMBs?

Recall is commonly introduced in highly regulated settings. Its supervision and implementation are based on laws applied by specific institutions. Depending on the specific regulation, an EMB could be responsible for administrative and technical aspects of the oversight and validation of a proposed recall but could also be responsible for political judgment and interpretation. For instance, when the reason given for pursuing a recall must be demonstrated and evaluated by an electoral body, the independence of this body becomes crucial in enabling or preventing recall efforts. In extreme situations of cooptation, the electoral body would become an instrument of the executive in the application of recall against political “enemies” and the prevention of this application against allies. Such an example is offered by the attempt to activate recall against President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela in 2016, systematically blocked by the Venezuelan National Electoral Council.

Based on the empirical evidence presented in the article, how would you comment on the frequency of recall referendums in Ecuador? 

This frequency has varied considerably since the first regulation – from none to hundreds to a few – depending on changes in the regulation. The particularity of most recent Ecuadorian practice is that the electoral body is responsible both for implementing the formal legal requirements governing recall and for judging whether the reasons presented for the recall are sufficient. This grants power to non-elected authorities to evaluate and decide on the validity of a politically based request. We see a danger in this mechanism. It puts incentives for either manipulation and elite control or for unclear decisions in the hands of a body whose main task should be to formally supervise and control but not to judge politically based requests.  

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Full citation of the article:
Welp, Yanina, and Ana Sofía Castellanos. “Understanding the Use of Recall Referendums: Evidence from Ecuador.” International Political Science Review (online June 2019): 1–14. doi:0192512119830373

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Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by A.P.S.Photography/