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Ecuador’s Correa claims an overwhelming victory to a third presidential term

President Rafael Correa crushed the opposition Sunday, avoiding a runoff and winning the right to lead this Andean nation through 2017.

Correa won 56.9 percent of the vote versus his nearest rival, former banker Guillermo Lasso, who won 23.6 percent, according to preliminary results released by the National Election Council.

Correa said the commanding victory was a clear endorsement of his socialist policies that have been the backbone of his “Citizens’ Revolution.”

“You’ve given us the ability to change this country once and for all,” Correa told cheering supporters outside the presidential palace. “Nothing and no one can stop this revolution.”

Correa, 49, was also expecting his Alianza País party to sweep the 137-seat congress and give him the leeway to deepen his reforms, which he told supporters need to be “radical, profound and fast.”

Correa has vowed to keep plowing the nation’s oil wealth into reducing poverty, building roads and universities, and pursuing alternative energy projects. But some of his proposals are more polemic. He also wants to push land reform and redistribution, and pass a media law that he said is designed to rectify the “corrupt press.”

Preliminary results early Monday, showed the ruling party with a strong lead in the legislative race.

Lasso, 57, of the CREO party, had run on a conciliatory platform of reducing political tensions, luring back foreign investors and hiring 20,000 more police to crack down on rising crime. But his pledges were overshadowed by the government’s ability to point to high-profile public works, including 5,000 miles of refurbished roads and a soon-to-be inaugurated international airport for the capital.

“If we voted for another president, we’d be starting from zero,” said Luis Aguayo, 56, a taxi driver. “Correa has done good work; all our other presidents never did anything.”

The opposition vote was divided among seven candidates, but Lasso was the only true contender. Lucio Gutiérrez, a former president who was deposed in 2005, came in third with 6.2percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.

Correa’s “every-man” style and ability to get things done have made him a hero to some in this Andean nation that had grown weary of corruption and political chaos. But Correa has also been accused of eroding democracy by co-opting the courts, using state resources to attack opponents and muzzling the press. He’s often compared to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

In a news conference after the vote, Correa dedicated his victory to Chávez and wished his “dear friend” a quick recovery from cancer surgery.

Correa also said he was willing to work with “decent” political opponents, but he didn’t offer many olive branches. He called Ecuador’s and Latin America’s media some of the “worst in the world” and said he would not talk to opposition leaders he considers “corrupt, dishonest immoral and responsible for the sacking of the country.”

The tough talk plays well with many of his supporters, but others find it alarming. Francisco Orozco, 51, had supported Correa in the past but said he’s weary of the president’s aggressive tone. “Yes, he’s done things, but he is so angry all the time,” Orozco said, as he sat in a Quito park after having cast his vote. “You don’t have to be mean to get things done; you don’t have to be so arrogant.”

During his concession speech in Guayaquil, Lasso said his party would fight for the country and oppose the government “not with insults and abuse, but with ideas.”

The Union of South American Nations, which was observing the vote, said there were no major problems on election day. However, the organization has received four complaints from political parties, including Correa’s, about irregularities leading up to the race. The head of the observation team, María Emma Mejía, said those allegations would be addressed in the organization’s final report in March.

Correa came to power in 2007 in the wake of an economic crisis and political turbulence that had burned through seven presidents in nine years. The young, U.S.-educated economics professor ran as a reformer, vowing to stamp out corruption and use the country’s natural resources to help the poor.

Correa made his mark early by defaulting on $3.8 billion in foreign debt that he said was an onerous legacy of corrupt administrations, and forcing oil companies to renegotiate contracts in the government’s favor. He has since poured those saving into infrastructure, health, education and cash subsidies for the needy.

While he has made deep reforms, he’s also fond of grand gestures.

In 2010, Correa ripped open his shirt and dared protesting policemen to shoot him. That incident led to him being briefly held hostage by the forces in an act the administration considers an attempted coup.

Last year, under pressure at home for attacking the press, Correa gave political asylum to Julian Assange, the free-speech crusader and controversial founder of WikiLeaks. Assange has been stuck in Ecuador’s London embassy since June as he resists extradition to Sweden.

Correa’s first term was due to end in 2011, but when he overhauled the constitution in 2009 it triggered new elections, which he easily won. Under the new constitution, Correa can’t run again, and he has insisted he’ll leave the country when his mandate ends to clear the way for his successor. But Simon Pachano, a political science professor at Quito’s Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences, said Correa may be tempted to take a page out of Chávez’s book and try to stay in power. “The Citizens’ Revolution is Rafael Correa,” Pachano said. “If he wants it to continue, he will have to continue.”