After one of the most bitter and contentious campaigns in recent memory, Ecuadorians are going to the polls Sunday in a tight race that’s being watched around the region as a barometer for Latin America’s left.
Voters will decide between continuing President Rafael Correa’s decade-long populist push he calls a “Citizens’ Revolution” or embracing a candidate who is promising to stamp out corruption and make pro-market changes.
The vote could also determine the fate of WikiLeaks’ founder Julisan Assange, who has been holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy since 2012.
Polls published last week showed Correa’s handpicked candidate Lenín Moreno with a narrow lead in the race over Guillermo Lasso of the CREO party. But with a large portion of the population claiming to be undecided, there’s an air of uncertainty over the country.
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Many fear that weeks of heated rhetoric and talk of potential fraud could lead to outbursts of violence, even as candidates an all sides called for calm.
Danilo Balarezo, 49, said he was voting for Lasso because the country is hungry for a change in leadership. But he also said that if Moreno were to win, he wants him to win by a large margin.
“If this comes down to just a few votes, everybody’s going to say there was fraud and then we don’t know what might happen,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
On Sunday, as he cast his vote, Correa called for calm and promised there would be a smooth transition of power regardless of who won.
“Victory must be accepted with humility and defeat must be accepted with humility,” he said.
Local media reported sporadic problems, with polling stations in some regions failing to open on time.
A video circulating on social media that appeared to show an Ecuadorian official at the Miami voting station arguing with poll workers and then snatching the ballot box.
More than 350,000 voters are registered abroad. And during the first round of the election in February, those ballots were seen as decisive in pushing the race into Sunday’s runoff.
Ecuador is one of South America’s smallest countries — best known for the Galapagos and as a tourism hotspot — but it’s also become the hemisphere’s latest political weathervane.
After leftist governments have been shoved aside in places like Argentina and Brazil, many are waiting to see if Ecuador will be next.
The opposition has been warning voters that Correa’s socialist bent is leading the country down the path to being another dysfunctional Venezuela.
Lasso, who voted in the port city of Guayaquil, warned voters that they had a clear choice to make.
“You can choose the path of Venezuela or choose the path of democracy and freedom,” he said.
Sunday’s decision will also have ripples across the Atlantic, where WikiLeaks’ Assange has asylum in Ecuador’s embassy avoiding extradition to Sweden. Lasso has said he intends to evict Assange if he wins. Moreno is likely to allow him to stay and keep waging his legal fight.
In many ways, Ecuador is hard to pigeonhole. Correa will be stepping down with an approval rating of more than 40 percent as many here credit him with building new roads, schools and hospitals and dragging the Andean nation into the spotlight.
But critics say he’s driven the country into debt, that he developed an authoritarian streak — clamping down on the press and his political foes — and that his administration is keeping a lid on corruption scandals.
In particular, Moreno’s running mate, Jorge Glas, who is currently Correa’s vice president, is under a cloud of suspicion amid allegations that he received bribes as he oversaw the state-run Petroecuador oil company. (Glas and Correa have dismissed the rumblings as part of a dirty tricks campaign.)
Also, in December, representatives of the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht pleaded guilty in U.S. courts to paying millions of dollars in bribes for contracts in almost a dozen countries, including $33.5 million in Ecuador. But investigators here have been mum about who might be implicated.
Jorge Alvarez, a 60-year-old cab driver, said he feared the country would never know what’s truly happening unless there was a change in the administration.
“Lenín [Moreno] will just cover everything up,” he said.
For many, however, Lasso represents a leap into the unknown or, even worse, into the past. Before Correa assumed office in 2007, Ecuador was one of the most unstable countries in the hemisphere, burning through seven presidents in 10 years.
And many remember the 1999 banking and economic crisis that wiped out their life savings. Lasso had been a member of President Jamil Mahuad’s economic cabinet during those troubles. And Moreno and others have accused him of profiting during the crisis.
Luis Fernando Sisalima, a 36-year-old beautician, said he remembers those chaotic times and doesn’t want to go back. And he says he has no faith that Lasso, a successful businessman, will stick up for the poor.
“Millionaires can never provide solutions for this country,” he said. “Millionaires only know how to protect their circle of friends.”
Regardless of who wins, analysts say the country is in for some serious belt tightening. Yet in the waning days of the race, both sides seemed to be making promises that will be difficult to keep.
Cab drivers in this southern colonial town said Lasso’s representatives had promised them access to $100,000 in loans if they voted for him. And Moreno’s campaign has been asking for votes in exchange for free or subsidized housing and the promise that he’s going to increase welfare payments from $50 to $150.
“They can promise whatever they want,” said Alvarez. “But people are really stupid if they believe it’s going to happen.”
Polls close at 6 p.m. EST and the National Electoral Council has said it may announce results late Sunday — if the race isn’t too tight.