BOGOTA -- As Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa biked through the streets of the capital Monday to register his candidacy for the Feb. 17 presidential race, he had reasons to be relaxed. Six years into office, he has record-high approval ratings, is facing a splintered opposition and has a 33-point lead over his nearest rival.
To Correa and his supporters, the rosy scenario is an endorsement of his progressive social policies, focus on the poor and infrastructure projects. To his foes, however, the daunting lead is a reflection of a skewed political system built on the nation’s oil wealth and at the expense of potential rivals.
“We’re making history and we’re going to take this citizens’ revolution to victory again,” Correa, 49, told supporters over the weekend as he announced his intention to seek a third term.
But like his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in last month’s presidential election, Correa has the deck stacked in his favor well before the votes are cast, said Guillermo Lasso, 56, who is shaping up to be Correa’s main opponent.
“Fraud doesn’t necessarily mean manipulating the results on Election Day,” said Lasso, a banker who is running on a center-left platform. “Fraud includes unfair rules that don’t allow for fair and free elections. This vote will be free but it won’t be fair, because one boxer has his feet tied, hands tied and has gauze in his mouth.”
While candidates aren’t allowed to begin running spots until Jan. 4, Correa floods the airwaves with ads, interrupts programming on a regular basis and spends hours every Saturday on live TV touting his successes and attacking his rivals. And record-high oil prices have allowed him to take credit for popular subsidies and public works programs that have helped reduce poverty and close the income gap.
According to the Mexican polling firm Mitofsky, Correa — a U.S.-trained economist and former university lecturer — is the most popular leader in the hemisphere, with approval ratings of 80 percent.
A poll taken in October by Ecuador’s Cedatos found Correa would have won with 56 percent of the valid votes if the election was held then, followed by Lasso with 23 percent. If a candidate wins by more than 50 percent, or at least 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point difference over his nearest rival, he can avoid a runoff.
“At this point, Correa has a real chance of winning the race in the first round,” said Cedatos President Polibio Cordova.
The president’s popularity is even more notable because Ecuador has a habit of turning on its leaders. Before Correa took office in 2007, the Andean nation had toppled three presidents in eight years, including his immediate predecessor.
But some say Correa’s popularity is a mirage, created by undercutting potential rivals.
Alvaro Noboa, 60, is Ecuador’s wealthiest man and is running for the presidency for the fifth time. In the 2006 race, he won the first-round of the election only to lose to Correa in the runoff. As he was considering entering this year’s race, he was hit with a $98 million dollar tax bill dating back from 2005.
Speaking from New York recently, Noboa said Correa is using Ecuador’s tax authority to sideline him.
“Correa doesn’t want to face real opposition,” Noboa said. “It’s like something out of North Korea, Syria or Cuba — he’s using all means available to keep people from participating in the election.”