Ecuadorans choose their president: socialist or banker?

Santiago PIEDRA SILVA with Florence PANOUSSIAN in Latacunga
·2-min read

Some 13 million Ecuadorans are eligible to vote in presidential elections Sunday in which a socialist and a former banker are vying for leadership of a country besieged by deep economic problems.

Opinion polls show leftist economist Andres Arauz and conservative Guillermo Lasso the clear frontrunners among 16 candidates, with indigenous rights campaigner Yaku Perez in a distant third place.

The vote for president and 137 members of the unicameral congress takes place as Latin America is battling a second, deadly wave of Covid-19 which has aggravated Ecuador's economic troubles.

Campaigning ended Thursday, with both Arauz and Lasso predicting victory for their side.

Arauz, 35, represents the Union of Hope (UNES) coalition of left-wing parties, while businessman Lasso, 65, is of the CREO rightwing movement.

Arauz is a protege of two-time socialist president Rafael Correa, who remains a strong political force in the country despite a graft conviction that sank his hopes of campaigning to become Arauz's deputy.

Arauz has promised to return the country to a socialist path after a four-year hiatus under President Lenin Moreno.

He has pledged to disburse $1,000 to a million families during his first month in office, as well as a special tax on the rich.

Running in his third presidential race, free market advocate Lasso has said he would create a million jobs in a year.

He will likely stick to the austerity policies adopted by Moreno, who has had to rein in spending in exchange for International Monetary Fund loans to bolster the oil-producing country's faltering dollar-based economy.

- Second round? -

Ecuador is mired in debt as the profits of an oil boom during the Correa presidency dried up under Moreno as the price of crude crashed.

National debt rose from 26 percent of GDP to 44 percent during the term of Moreno.

The coronavirus epidemic has piled on the pressure, with some $6.4 billion in losses attributed directly to the health crisis, according to government data.

Ecuador's economy is forecast to contract 8.9 percent in 2020, while unemployment reached 8.6 percent last September -- more than doubling in nine months.

Moreno, his popularity at an all-time low of seven percent, is not seeking reelection.

Given the polling numbers, it is unlikely the first presidential round will be decisive.

To emerge victorious, a candidate must take half of the votes cast, plus one, or at least 40 percent with a 10 percentage point advantage over his nearest rival.

A second round is provisionally scheduled for April 11.

Perez, the first indigenous contender in 15 years, is polling at 12 percent, while the remaining 12 candidates are all at under four percent, including the only woman on the list -- Ximena Pena.

Election officials decided not to cancel the vote despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed some 15,000 people in Ecuador.

Polls suggest many voters may stay away for fear of infection.