Quito (AFP) - Ecuador voted Sunday in general elections that could see a pillar of the Latin American left swing to the right -- and potentially deprive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of his place of refuge in London.
President Rafael Correa, who is not running, expressed confidence that his party's candidate, Lenin Moreno, would win in the first round.
"They want to give the impression it's going to a second round. The polls clearly say the contrary," he said after casting his ballot at an elementary school in Quito.
"Let's await the results and, in a democratic spirit, accept the will of the Ecuadoran people expressed at the polls."
The vote puts Correa's legacy into question. He is marking the end of 10 years in power during three terms as one of Latin America's leading leftists and an outspoken critic of the United States.
It could also alter the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The two leading conservative candidates have said that if they win, they will evict him from Ecuador's London embassy, where he has taken refuge for fear of extradition to the United States.
- Continuity or change -
An economist, Correa, 53, initially oversaw a boom in his oil-rich country of 16 million people.
A decade on, "what is at stake are two visions of society, two visions of development, two visions of the state," he said of Sunday's election.
Voters must decide whether to continue his socialist agenda by electing his ally Moreno or follow Argentina, Brazil and Peru in switching to a conservative government.
Moreno, who leads in opinion polls, promises to continue Correa's tax-and-spend social policies.
"The Ecuadoran people have affection (for us) and are determined to continue with this process," the 63-year-old told AFP.
To win in the first round, he needs to receive at least 40 percent of the vote and outpoll his nearest rival by 10 percent.
If he wins, Correa said, Ecuador will remain "on the same path but with different leadership, which I think in the end is very desirable for the country."
- Trump -
But in an uncertain contest, Moreno faces a challenge from conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso, 61, second in the opinion polls.
He has vowed to cut spending and taxes, lure foreign investment and create a million jobs.
He has also slammed Correa's allies over alleged links to a corruption scandal.
"We have to vote for change to fight against corruption," Lasso said at a campaign rally on Wednesday.
The third-placed candidate is conservative former lawmaker Cynthia Viteri, 51.
Correa says Latin America needs a strong leftist movement to resist US President Donald Trump's hard line on immigration and trade.
But Lasso and Viteri have shown more willingness to work with Washington since Trump's election victory in November.
- Boom, bust -
Franco Sandoval, a student in Quito, said he will vote "for a change."
"The ones who are in power have been there for a long time. They have done their job," he said. "But at some point, they go off the rails."
Ecuador exports half-a-million barrels of oil a day. Correa used the wealth to fund social welfare schemes and public works.
He called it "21st-century socialism."
But oil prices have plunged over the past three years, helping shrink Ecuador's economy by 1.7 percent last year.
Correa is accused of failing to save any petrodollars for a rainy day and of hampering businesses with high taxes and duties.
"Whoever becomes president will have to dig the grave of '21st century socialism,'" said Alberto Acosta-Burneo, an economist at the Spurrier Group consultancy.
"It is no longer viable in the current economic situation."
- Close contest -
Although opinion polls indicate Moreno will probably win Sunday's first-round vote, his lead may not be big enough to avoid a runoff in April against one of his conservative rivals, most likely Lasso.
Analysts say voters fed up with Correa may rally behind any conservative candidate who gets through to the second round.
Polls show a high ratio of undecided voters.
"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.
But Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington was more cautious.
"It is a mistake to underestimate the strength of support for Correa's side," he said.
Polling stations opened at 1200 GMT and were due to close at 2200 GMT.