Lessons from Ecuador on Emigrant Engagement

The incorporation of emigrants into the legislative bodies of their country of origin represents a significant advancement in the ways that governments define their borders and interact with their non-resident citizens.


Source: Carlos Pozo/Cancillería del Ecuador.

Emigrants who leave Latin America for the Global North are often mistakenly regarded as dissociated citizens from their homeland politics. However, emigrants often remain engaged in the politics of their homeland and actively seek opportunities to take the initiative in their native democracies, whether by casting a ballot or serving in representative bodies. This is the case of Ecuadorian emigrants around the world. 

Ecuadorian emigrants take part in various national electoral processes and hold six representative seats in the National Assembly—making Ecuador one of the few countries in the world with emigrant representation in its legislative body. Through these mechanisms of political inclusion, emigrants have played a decisive role in Ecuadorian politics that other nations should seek to emulate on their own.


Fostering Emigrant Participation in Ecuador

Ecuadorians abroad have been able to participate in six electoral processes from 2006 to 2023. Rafael Correa’s presidency (2007-2017) marked a period of significant internal political change in Ecuador, and this was no less true regarding emigrant politics and participation. Since 2008, his government implemented a new constitution allowing emigrants to vote not only for presidential candidates but also for referendums, representatives on the Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social (an autonomous anti-corruption institution), and emigrant legislators for the National Assembly. The emigrant representation consists of six seats divided equally among three voting districts abroad: the United States and Canada; Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa; and Europe, Oceania, and Asia. His government also expanded consulates, embassies, and Ecuadorian centers around cities with large Ecuadorian diasporas. At the same time, Correa created programs to facilitate emigrants’ return to Ecuador and designed a National Secretariat for Migrants that focused on protecting emigrants abroad. 

In return, emigrants showed support for the Correista movement. From 2009 to 2017, the end of Correa’s presidency, Correista candidates repeatedly won a majority of the emigrant presidential vote and the majority of emigrant seats for the National Assembly. Simultaneously, after his presidency, Correa’s hand-picked candidates, Lenin Moreno and Andrés Aráuz, obtained the majority of the vote for the districts abroad. In the latest elections of 2023, the newly rebranded Correista party, named Citizen’s Revolution, again obtained four emigrant seats after the second round.

Years after Correa’s presidency, emigrants continue to benefit from these expanded opportunities for inclusion. While some argue that Correa’s political inclusion of emigrants served as a clientelistic tool to expand his voter base, the recent election has shown the beginnings of a break between emigrants and the Correistas. Citizen’s Revolution presidential candidate Luisa González lost the emigrant vote in two of three foreign districts in the run-off elections, a sharp change from past Correista dominance. This major shift from an earlier Correista loyalty challenges the viability of increasing support for emigrants as a purely clientelistic election tactic.


Emigrant Participation Today 

One of the key indicators of emigrant engagement in democracy is their turn-in rate in elections. Since 2006, when only 143,352 people were registered, there has been an overwhelming increase in emigrant participation to 409,250, according to data on the 2023 elections. Taking into account that the vote for emigrants is facultative as opposed to the compulsory vote for resident citizens, the major increase in turnout demonstrates a growing emigrant desire to participate in their homeland’s democracy. According to interviews conducted with Ecuador emigrants prior to the second round of the 2023 elections, the death of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio also drove the vote abroad. 

Despite this increase in emigrant voters, there remains a high level of absenteeism among this constituency (277,936 in 2023). Though, to some degree, this may stem from cyberattacks on the initial round of the 2023 elections, it also demonstrates an increasing need to expand enfranchisement tools in Ecuadorian diaspora centers around the globe to keep up with the rising demand for participation. Since the 2023 elections were the first elections in which Ecuadorian emigrants could vote electronically in the first round, tools to improve emigrant engagement could include providing training on digital voting, expanding consular reach beyond densely populated urban areas, and especially facilitating undocumented emigrants to trust in political institutions. 

Giving emigrants political representation strengthens Ecuadorian democracy by providing another platform for democratic participation and allowing emigrants to foster a sense of connection and civic responsibility from afar. This enables Ecuador to capitalize on its large population abroad, with eight percent of Ecuadorians living outside of Ecuador, according to the UN. It may be this sense of civic duty that has led Ecuador to become the highest remittance-receiving nation in Latin America (as a percentage of GDP), with nearly USD 5 billion dollars sent back to the country from abroad in 2022. This has served to keep household spending high, even through recent economic hardships that have seen a higher portion of remittance earnings used on basic needs like housing and food.


Charting a Future for Emigrants Around the World

Other states should acknowledge emigrants’ economic contributions through remittances and recognize their status as stakeholders on the nation’s development agenda. In the long run, countries in the region can benefit from the relationship with emigrant constituents as this community forges ideas of citizenship and national identity beyond geographical borders.

As political leaders in Latin America acknowledge the importance of including emigrants in their democratic projects, countries in the region continue to adopt similar tools. For instance, in 1991, Colombia granted non-resident citizens the possibility to elect their own representatives in the lower legislative house. In Uruguay, since 2008, Law No. 18250 has created “Consultative Councils” for Uruguayan emigrants around the world to participate in domestic politics. In 2021, Peruvian emigrants were able to choose two representatives for the National Congress for the first time. Around the globe, 15 countries created special representation seats for emigrants in their legislative houses by 2018. 

The incorporation of emigrants into the legislative bodies of their country of origin represents a significant advancement in the ways that governments define their borders and interact with their non-resident citizens. Ecuador has set an example by incorporating mechanisms of political inclusion for emigrants. These mechanisms allow emigrants to make an impact on the legislation and agendas in their countries of origin. This representative inclusion is a significant advancement in the process of citizen engagement and democracy-building. The Ecuadorian example illustrates unique steps that countries in the region could take to increase the inclusion and participation of non-resident citizens. 


Salomé Valdivieso is a research and newsletter intern at Global Americans. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, International Studies, and Political Science from Luther College. She is also a Fellow at the Center for Global Learning at Luther College.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed.

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