Ecuador ruling-party candidate wins race, but runoff still in play

Lenin Moreno, presidential candidate for the ruling party Alliance PAIS, greets supporters as he arrives to await the results of the general election, in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017.
Lenin Moreno, presidential candidate for the ruling party Alliance PAIS, greets supporters as he arrives to await the results of the general election, in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. AP

Ruling party candidate Lenín Moreno convincingly won Sunday’s presidential race against a divided opposition, but as the ballot count went late into the night, it was unclear whether he could avoid an April 2 runoff that analysts said would be tough for him to clinch.

With 78 percent of the vote counted, the National Electoral Council said Moreno had won 38.8 percent of the vote versus his nearest rival, former banker Guillermo Lasso, with 28.7 percent. Former congresswoman Cynthia Viteri and former Quito Mayor Paco Moncayo won 16.3 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.

Moreno’s lead was never in doubt, but Lasso hoped to keep the gap narrow enough to force a runoff and rally the opposition behind him.

Read More: World watches Ecuador vote

In order to win outright, a candidate must have at least 40 percent of the vote and a 10-point lead over the nearest rival. Exit polls offered mixed indications Sunday night of whether that had happened. And analysts warned that rural votes would be some of the last to be counted, and would likely boost the ruling party lead.

At a rally for supporters late Sunday, Moreno said he thought he might still be able to break the 40 percent threshold and avoid a runoff, saying votes from Manabi province and abroad would favor him.

“We have to cross our fingers,” he told the cheering crowds. “But I think victory in this round is still possible.”

Moreno, 63, a onetime businessman who has been paraplegic since a botched robbery in 1998, was vice president for the current president, Rafael Correa, from 2007 to 2013.

Lasso also addressed supporters, saying a runoff was a certainty, as Viteri and other candidates in the eight-way race threw their support behind him.

“These arms are outstretched to embrace all Ecuadorians who dream of change,” he said. He also invited disaffected government supporters to join his cause.

Fraud fears?

As a runoff remained in question late Sunday, social media erupted with allegations of fraud. The watchdog group Participación Ciudadano said that its volunteers doing a parallel quick-count were removed from some voting centers, in violation of the law. But observers from the Union of South American Nations said they had not seen any widespread irregularities.

The election in this small Andean nation could have global repercussions. In a region that has seen leftist leaders in Argentina and Brazil shoved aside, some were watching Ecuador as a test to see if the trend would continue.

And free-speech advocates are also focused on what the vote might mean for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy since 2012 fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual misconduct charges. Both Lasso and Viteri had said they would evict him from the embassy — setting the stage for his extradition. Moreno, however, is likely to continue to providing a safe haven.

Correa legacy

Regardless of the final results, the election marks a turning point for Ecuador, where Correa, 53, has ruled longer than any other president. He was swept into power in 2007 and went to work overhauling the constitution and laying the groundwork for his socialist “Citizens Revolution.” Two years later, he won reelection in the first round — the first president to do so since the country returned to democracy in 1978. In 2013, Correa once again won the presidency in the first round with 57 percent of the vote.

In the last decade, he’s been credited with changing the face of the nation, using a boom in oil prices to create world-class highways, schools and hospitals.

But he’s also drawn fire for his authoritarian streak. Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Correa took on the press early on. In 2009, he called the media “the government’s biggest political enemy” and created a powerful watchdog to keep the media in line. His administration has sued a number of outlets, columnists and cartoonists, winning million-dollar judgments.

In more recent years, his administration has been plagued by the stench of corruption, including in the state-run Petroecuador oil company. Crucially, much of that alleged corruption occurred when the institution was under the purview of Jorge Glas, Moreno’s running mate and Correa’s current vice president.

And many here believe there’s more dirt just beneath the surface.

“I think we need a change of political parties just to find out what’s really been happening these last 10 years,” said Haroldo Ocampo, a 54-year-old cab driver.

Others, however, feel a debt of gratitude to Correa for taming a politically chaotic country and spurring progress.

Florida voters

In South Florida, where almost 5,000 Ecuadorians are registered, Marcel Perdomo said he was voting for Moreno because he appreciated what the ruling party, Alianza País, had done for labor and human rights.

“Yes, there have been some shameful acts and errors on part of the government,” said Perdomo, who has lived in Miami for 18 years, “but if you put things in the balance, the positives outweigh the negatives.”

But others predicted that most Ecuadorians in South Florida would likely support the opposition.

What is clear is that the next four years will be tough for the incoming president. By all accounts, the new leader will be inheriting a country that’s deep in debt and with little access to fresh resources. Belt-tightening and tax hikes will likely be a reality, even as the administration will have to figure out how to create new jobs.

“Whoever wins will have to make changes and has to figure out how to bring investment to the country,” Patricio Alarcon, president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, told Equavisa television.

Questions have been raised about whether Moreno is up to the task. He stepped down from the vice presidency in 2013 citing health reasons — although he continued working as an advocate for the disabled in the United Nations. And some wonder whether Glas, considered a Correa hardliner, will hold the real power in the government.

El Nuevo Herald’s Daniel Shoer Roth contributed to this report from Miami.