QUITO -- Plowing through a crowd of supporters, President Rafael Correa pumped his fist as he sang along to one of his blaring campaign jingles: “We already have a president. We already have Rafael.”
If the slogan sounds presumptuous, there’s good reason. Facing a divided opposition, Correa is leading most major polls for this Sunday’s presidential race by a double-digit margin, giving him a shot at avoiding a runoff.
“Everybody knows that he’s going to be our president for the next four years,” said Marina Montero, 70, as she sat on a curb hoping to catch a glimpse of the candidate. “I wish he would stay for another 35.”
Guillermo Lasso, a former banker, is running a distant second in the polls.
Since taking office in 2007, Correa, 49, has seen his popularity rise as he has plowed the nation’s oil wealth into education, infrastructure and cash subsidies for the needy. Even foes admit the leftist economist has changed the face of the country, building or refurbishing almost 5,000 miles of roads, throwing up bridges and overhauling rail lines.
Next week, the country will inaugurate a multi-million-dollar airport for the capital. Public spending has increased six times over the past six years to $6.3 billion in 2012, a regional record.
Correa spent much of the campaign reminding voters how dysfunctional Ecuador was before he took office. In 1999, the country was rattled by a currency and banking crisis that forced the country to swap the sucre for the dollar and sent thousands abroad looking for work. The deep political unrest chewed through seven presidents in nine years.
“Think about all that we have accomplished, my friends; we have advanced so far,” he said during the final event of his campaign Thursday. “But the same old people want to drag us back to the past.”
Still, progress has come with a price. Like his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez, critics say Correa has an authoritarian streak and has used his power to co-opt the courts, the National Election Council and other entities. He has also cracked down on public protests and cowed the press with multi-million-dollar fines and threats of imprisonment.
The Committee to Protect Journalists this week said Ecuador had joined the ranks of Iran, Somalia and Ethiopia in 2012 as a nation from which journalists have had to flee. His opponents accuse him of abusing the state-run press to promote his candidacy even as he has kept independent media on a tight leash.
Newspapers did not publish news about Thursday’s campaign closings, for fear of breaking a blackout on political coverage 48 hours before the vote.
A U.S. educated economist, Correa speaks English, French, Spanish and Quichua. Those who know him say he can be thoughtful and conciliatory in private, but onstage he can be venomous, denouncing the “corrupt press,” “Yankee imperialism” and the “grotesque and conspiring” opposition.
Correa often invokes Sept. 30, 2010 — the day he was briefly taken hostage by protesting policemen. The administration says it was a failed coup that left five dead. Critics say Correa created the chaos by wading into a labor dispute.
“Never forget the coup of September 30,” Correa roared to the crowd, as he accused the opposition of “drinking imported whisky in a five-star hotel” as they celebrated his death that day.
The bombast plays well with supporters, but has frightened former allies and has allowed opponents to paint him as divisive and heavy-handed.
Lasso is running a distant second to the president, but believes he can force Correa into a runoff where he would face a unified opposition.
The 57-year-old candidate says he wants to reintroduce reasoned political discourse, cut taxes, woo foreign investors and crack down on crime by hiring 20,000 more police.
Standing at a monument to Ecuador’s founding fathers earlier this week, Lasso released pigeons and said he would “set the nation free” from Correa.
“We’re fighting to recover democracy and liberty for all 14.5 million Ecuadoreans,” he said. “Ecuadoreans have already decided that they want hope.”
But first, Lasso has to survive Sunday. Correa can win the race outright in two ways: by garnering at least 50 percent of the vote, or by winning 40 percent with a 10-point difference over his nearest rival. Failing that, he must face the runner-up April 7.
Complicating the electoral math for Lasso is the fact that the opposition vote is split among six candidates, including former president Lucio Gutierrez, who was overthrown in 2005, and Alvaro Noboa, a banana baron who has run for the presidency five times.
A Feb. 4 poll by Ecuador’s CIEES shows Correa with 56.3 percent of the vote, followed by Lasso with 20.6 percent and Gutierrez with 5.8 percent. Other polls show a slightly tighter race, but almost all have Correa winning in the first round. Lasso claims the polls have been bought by the presidency “to win a psychological war that they know they have lost.”
But even business-minded reform candidates are playing by Correa’s rules. One of Lasso’s flagship proposals during the campaign was to increase the administration’s monthly cash subsidy that goes to 1.9 million elderly, poor and disabled from $35 to $50.
Correa seized the idea and pushed a bill through Congress that financed the increase by taxing banking profits — a move seen as a direct attack on Lasso. Noboa has tried to one-up them both by offering to increase the subsidy to $100 if he’s elected.
Comparisons between Correa and Venezuela’s Chávez are easy to make: both are charismatic leftists who have used referendums to overhaul their constitutions, expand control of the state and clamp down on dissent.
But unlike Chávez, who won the right to indefinite reelection, Correa insists he’s leaving at the end of a new term in 2017.
Correa’s most dedicated supporters don’t want to consider life without him.
Jorge Pozo, an oil engineer, said people like Correa only come once in a lifetime, and the nation needs him.
“If he wanted to stay longer, I would support him,” he said. “I know that it might not be very democratic but it’s the truth.”