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.