Ruling party candidate Moreno leading Ecuador’s presidential race after contentious campaign

Voter tells of disruption at polling site

Dual citizen Eduardo Alarcon recalls and shares video of the disruption during the Ecuadorean presidential elections as citizens voted at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus on Sunday, 4/2/17.
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Dual citizen Eduardo Alarcon recalls and shares video of the disruption during the Ecuadorean presidential elections as citizens voted at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus on Sunday, 4/2/17.

Ruling-party candidate Lenín Moreno was leading Sunday’s contentious presidential race, sparking cries of fraud and demands for a recount in a contest that is being closely watched around the region as a bellwether for Latin America’s left.

With 94 percent of the vote counted, the National Electoral Council said Moreno had won 51.07 percent of the vote versus his rival and former banker Guillermo Lasso with 48.93 percent.

The news came after Lasso and his allies had already declared victory, citing a widely circulated exit poll. As news spread about the official results, demonstrators chanted “fraud!” and took to the streets. Television showed large crowds breaking through police barricades in the capital as they tried to reach the electoral body.

A quick count conducted by Participación Ciudadana, a respected civil society group, didn’t defray tensions. The organization said the results were too close to call, with less than 0.6 percent difference. The group did not say who was in the lead.

The political cliffhanger caps a race that was unusually contentious and bitter, and which pits dramatically visions of the country against each other.

Tensions were fueled after two polling companies, Cedatos and Perfiles de Opinion, gave contradictory exit polls, leading both sides to claim victory.

Speaking to supporters in Quito late Sunday, Moreno blasted the pollsters for creating false expectations and creating conflict, but he said he would govern for all Ecuadoreans.

“We will listen to our critics,” he said. “We are going to work in peace and harmony.”

Earlier in the night, as a Cedatos exit poll flashed on the screen at the campaign headquarters of opposition candidate Lasso in the port city of Guayaquil, the crowd broke into cheers. The company gave him a 53 percent to 47 percent lead in the race.

“Democracy and freedom have won in Ecuador,” Lasso said. “Today a new Ecuador is born.”

Read More: Ecuador vote seen as bellwether for Latin America’s left

However, in the capital of Quito, supporters of Moreno were focused on the exit polls being released by Perfiles de Opinion, which gave him 52 percent of the vote versus Lasso’s 48 percent.

Sebastian Hurtado, a Quito-based political analyst, said Lasso might have complicated the political scenario with his “victory lap as presidential-elect” on national television based on an exit poll.

“His supporters are going to be very frustrated and fight these results,” he predicted.

Dual citizen Eduardo Alarcon recalls and shares video of the disruption during the Ecuadorean presidential elections as citizens voted at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus on Sunday, 4/2/17.

César Monge, the national director of the opposition CREO party, said poll watchers had detected irregularities — with the candidates’ vote tally being inverted by the National Electoral Council. And he asked the administration not to rush to declare a winner.

“This isn’t about speed,” he said. “Ecuadoreans need to know the truth.”

In a speech late Sunday, Lasso said his party will challenge the vote in all 24 provinces, saying the administration had “crossed a line by violating the will of the people.” But he also called for calm, asking his followers not to be provoked into violence.

At stake is the legacy of President Rafael Correa and his leftist “Citizens’ Revolution.”

In an celebratory interview with Ecuavisa television Sunday, before the official results came in, Lasso said his goal was to “dismantle” Correismo, including trashing a restrictive media law, pardoning the “politically persecuted” and killing a Correa amendment that allows indefinite presidential reelection.

Correa remains a popular figure here, and he has approval ratings of more than 40 percent. He has said that after the election he will move to Belgium — where his wife is from — and keep from interfering in politics. But many expect him to plot his political return in four years.

Although Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America, the region has been focused on this race that offered two dramatically different views of the country. And many were seeing it as measure of the strength of Latin America’s left.

The vote will also ripple across the Atlantic, where WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has been holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy since 2012 fighting extradition to Sweden. In an interview with the Miami Herald last month, Lasso said he would evict Assange, while Moreno has suggested he’ll keep the status quo.

Read More: Ecuador’s next president holds fate of WikiLeaks’ founder

Lasso, a former banker and economic minister, tried to woo voters with his promise to jump-start the economy and wash away a decade of accumulated corruption. But his biggest asset might have been that he represented a change.

Anita Tilán, a 32-year-old housekeeper, said she had supported Correa and his Alianza País party for years, but couldn’t rationalize it any longer.

“It’s just been too long,” she said of the administration. “We need a change even if that change isn’t exactly what we want.”

The vote capped one of the most bitter campaigns in recent memory and there were fears that violence might be simmering beneath the surface. During a Colombia-Ecuador soccer match last week in Quito, Lasso and his family were threatened and a mob of pro-government sympathizers hurled objects at them.

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, told voters they had a clear choice to make.

“You can choose the path of Venezuela or choose the path of democracy and freedom,” he said.

Critics have accused Correa of driving the country into debt, saying he developed an authoritarian streak — clamping down on the press and his political foes — and that his administration has kept a lid on corruption scandals.

Read More: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler are alive and well in Ecuador

In particular, Moreno’s running mate, Jorge Glas, who is currently Correa’s vice president, has been 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. He said he feared Moreno would “just cover everything up.”

For many, however, Lasso represented 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.

Read More: A wheelchair in Ecuador’s White House?

“Millionaires can never provide solutions for this country,” he said. “Millionaires only know how to protect their circle of friends.”

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.”