Moreno edges toward outright win in Ecuador presidential vote

Quito (AFP) - Leftist Lenin Moreno appeared to be edging toward an outright victory in Ecuador's presidential election on Sunday, with partial results showing him close to crossing the margin needed to avoid a runoff.

The vote is a test of the legacy of outgoing President Rafael Correa, Moreno's more hardline ally and an outspoken critic of the United States.

With nearly 82 percent of the ballots counted, Moreno had just under 39 percent of the vote, with nearly 29 percent going to his conservative rival Guillermo Lasso, figures published by the National Electoral Council showed.

Moreno, 63, needs more than 40 percent of the vote and a 10-point lead over his rival to win without facing a runoff on April 2.

He called for his side to "cross our fingers" that he could top 40 percent when the last results were counted.

"We will win this battle," he told cheering supporters in the capital Quito, then started to sing.

The president of the electoral council, Juan Pablo Pozo, urged candidates to wait for the ballot count to be completed -- expected around midday Monday.

- Assange -

If Moreno wins he will be the first wheelchair-user to become president in Ecuador, and one of just a few politicians in the world to use a wheelchair.

His legs were paralyzed when he was shot in a robbery in 1998.

If ex-banker Lasso wins the presidency, another pillar of the Latin American left will swing to the right.

The busting of a commodities boom has hastened the end of two decades of leftist predominance in Latin America.

Argentina, Brazil and Peru have all switched to conservative governments since late 2015.

Lasso has also said he will end WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's asylum in Ecuador's London embassy.

Assange is taking refuge there for fear of extradition to the United States for publishing leaked documents that embarrassed Washington.

- Economic crossroads -

Economist Correa, 53, is marking the end of 10 years in power during three terms as one of Latin America's leading leftists.

He initially oversaw a boom in the country of 16 million people, but the economy shrank 1.7 percent last year.

"The big factor in the vote was the economic crisis," said Alberto Acosta-Burneo, a consultant at the Spurrier Group.

Previously under Correa, "people felt like their lives had improved but it is no longer so."

Ecuador exports half a million barrels of oil a day. Correa used the wealth to fund social welfare schemes and public works.

But oil prices have plunged over the past three years.

Teacher Sofia Tinajero, 32, said she ended her support for Correa's side in this election and voted for a change.

"I have witnessed authoritarianism and a very great social decline," she said.

But another voter, Nora Molina, 53, judged "these past 10 years have shown how the country has advanced. I think we are going to keep that going."

Voters were deciding whether to continue Correa's tax-and-spend policies or give Lasso a mandate to cut spending and taxes.

Despite division among opposition groups, Lasso made headway by promising to create a million jobs and "sold himself as a good administrator," Acosta-Burneo said.

But Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington cautioned not to "underestimate the strength of support for Correa's side."

- Close contest -

Lasso has slammed Correa's allies over alleged links to corruption.

Correa blamed Lasso in part for a 1999 financial crisis when he was economy minister.

Analysts said voters fed up with Correa may rally behind a conservative candidate in the second round.

"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.