Ecuador to hold run-off in tense presidential vote

Quito (AFP) - Ecuador will hold a run-off presidential election in April after a hard fought and inconclusive first round, the electoral commission said.

The voting is being watched closely to see if oil-producing Ecuador will become the latest leftist-run country in Latin America to shift to the right.

It could also determine the immediate fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London since 2012 to avoid going to Sweden to face rape charges.

In voting on Sunday, ruling party leftist candidate Lenin Moreno finished first but fell short of the margin needed to avoid a run-off.

He will face a run-off on April 2 against his conservative rival Guillermo Lasso.

With 99.5 percent of the votes counted, Moreno, a former vice president under President Rafael Correa, garnered 39.3 percent of the votes, against 28.1 percent for Lasso, a former banker, the National Electoral Council said.

Under Ecuadoran law, in the first round the winner needs at least 40 percent of the votes and a margin of victory of at least 10 percentage points to avoid a run-off.

Opinion polls and analysts suggest Moreno faces a tough challenge in the second round since conservative voters from other parties are likely to rally behind Lasso.

"Any party could beat the governing one in the second round because there is major resistance to and rejection of the government," said political scientist Paolo Moncagatta of Quito's San Francisco University before Sunday's vote.

Correa however remained defiant that his side could win and extend leftist rule after his decade in power.

"Everything indicates that we will win in the second round," he said.

Lasso alleged fraud in the vote count, but the electoral council denied the accusation.

His supporters rallied in protest at the delay in publishing full results outside the council's headquarters, where scuffles broke out with police on Monday.

Lasso has vowed to cut spending and taxes, shifting away from the current government's tax-and-spend policies.

He has also said he will move to end Assange's asylum in Ecuador's embassy in London.

That protection has shielded Assange from arrest for possible extradition to the United States for leaking diplomatic cables that embarrassed Washington.

Correa on Wednesday denounced the idea of ejecting Assange as a breach of his rights. Moreno has said he will allow Assange to stay in the embassy.

The election is a test of the legacy of Correa, an outspoken critic of the United States.

A victory for Lasso would mean a fresh setback for the left in Latin America, after similar swings to the right in Argentina, Brazil and Peru.