New highways and motorways snake across Ecuador, lined with billboards reminding drivers how bad the Andean country’s potholed road network was until Rafael Correa was first elected as president six years ago. The towns and villages boast new schools and health clinics. The minimum wage has risen well above inflation, and some 2m poorer people (in a population of 14.5m) get monthly cash transfers. Free school uniforms and subsidised mortgages all help to give ordinary Ecuadoreans the sense that “most things are being done right,” says Pili Troya, a civil servant, who plans to vote to give Mr Correa another four-year term in the country’s general election on February 17th. In his campaign advertisements Mr Correa, a good-looking, smooth-tongued 49-year-old economist, presents himself as the man who turned his country round, after several years of political instability and economic humiliation, which included the collapse of the currency and its replacement by the American dollar in 2000. He rails against the IMF, bankers and privatisations. “Ecuador is no longer for sale,” he cries. “The country of despair has become one of hope”.
It is a seductive message which, according to opinion polls, seems certain to give him a comfortable victory. It is a sign of the irrelevance of Ecuador’s traditional political parties that the president’s closest challenger, Guillermo Lasso, is a banker; then comes Lucio Gutiérrez, a former army officer who, as president from 2003 to 2005, tried to do much the same as Mr Correa but less successfully. An emphatic victory would cement Mr Correa’s claim to inherit the mantle of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s ailing president, as the leader of Latin America’s group of populist nationalist governments.
But Mr Correa’s rule has a darker side that leads his opponents to fear another term will see a slide to a more autocratic regime. The president is intolerant of criticism. He has built a powerful government media empire, including two television networks seized from corrupt bankers. Like Mr Chávez and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández, he has abused a provision, intended for national emergencies, in which all television and radio stations are required to carry his broadcasts—no fewer than 1,365 of them between January 2007 and August 2012, according to Fundamedios, a media body. Freedom of expression is a “function of the state”, he claims. He has pursued criminal libel cases against critics, and is pushing to curb the powers of the media-freedom watchdog of the Organisation of American States.