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'Ecuador’s Chavez' headed for re-election landslide

Boosted by his country's low unemployment rate and strong oil exports, left-wing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa appears poised for re-election, with a majority of polls showing he could pull off a first-round victory on Sunday.


Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is widely expected to win a new term after overseeing a period of political stability and economic growth in the small South American country. The tough-talking incumbent, a close ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and other left-leaning presidents in the region, should win enough votes in Sunday’s election to avoid a second round, a majority of opinion polls showed.

In power since 2007, Correa is the first Ecuadorian president to complete his mandate in over sixteen years. The Andean country of 15 million people saw seven different presidents between 1996 and 2006. A US-trained economist, Correa was confirmed as president in 2009, in elections spurred by a new constitution.

According to Quito-based polling firms Perfiles de Opinion and CIEES, Correa will easily claim 40 percent of votes cast on Sunday, which includes a 10-point margin over his closest rival –two requirements needed to win outright in the first round.

A study by the Mexico-based pollster ARCOP shows Correa with a slightly smaller edge, meaning he could face a run-off poll against conservative banker Guillermo Lasso. But ARCOP also gave the incumbent a 69-percent approval rating among voters, leaving little doubt about the outcome of a second-round ballot.

In a stinging 2010 opinion piece, Wall Street Journal editor Mary O'Grady branded Correa "Ecuador's Chavez". Coming from the right-wing paper, this was not a compliment.

But Correa, 49, is also facing opposition from former allies who say his so-called “citizen revolution” has not gone far enough to the left. They accuse him of conceding too much favour to oil and mining interests to the detriment of the environment and local communities, including indigenous groups.

Mountain biking to new term

Correa has much to boast about, including impressive infrastructure build-up, record-low unemployment and steady growth since he entered office. Those feats are all the more impressive given Ecuador’s uniquely fragile position since the global financial crisis struck in 2008, according to the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CERP).

“[Ecuador’s] government acted creatively to work around the challenges of spurring


growth… while expanding social spending,” CERP wrote in a report last year, arguing that as a result, poverty and unemployment fell, while school enrolment rose.

Since 2008, Ecuador’s yearly oil exports have risen by 5.6 billion euros while inflation has droped by more than 4%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Ecuadorian president has taken that message on the campaign trail, adding that he still has much left to accomplish. In a television spot, the debonair candidate is seen mountain-biking across the country, taking note of new hospitals and telling voters: “there is no sense in going backwards.”

'Threat' to the environment

However, critics have tried to deflate Correa, calling him an authoritarian “caudillo” or Latin American strongman bent on concentrating power and silencing opponents.

“When the constitution was introduced, Correa said it was the best in the world and would last 300 years. But then he found it inconvenient because it was a straitjacket for an authoritarian,” Alberto Acosta, a former energy minister and one-time ally of Correa, recently told Uk daily The Guardian.

Acosta and others have suggested that Correa was not serious about respecting the “intrinsic” rights of nature, as outlined in the new constitution, and secretly planned to pull out of the Yasuni ITT project, which looks to forego drilling in the oil-rich Yasuni National Park  in exchange for international funds.

The Ecuadorian president has also received bad press abroad for pressing charges against one newspaper editor and expropriating two private TV channels. He was also the target of international rebukes after Ecuador offered political asylum to Wikileaks figurehead Julian Assange in the country’s embassy in London.

Nevertheless, these incidents are unlikely to resonate with ordinary Ecuadorian voters, many of whom see in Correa the promise of lasting stability and prosperity.

Eight candidates are vying for Ecuador's top job, but only three have a chance of preventing a a first-round victory for Correa. Here are the contenders taking on the incumbent.

Guillermo Lasso (Creating Opportunities Movement): Conservative former economy minister Guillermo Lasso, 57, is Correa’s competition from the right and the incumbent’s closest rival. A former entrepreneur and banker, he proposes a market-friendly approach to development, with some support for start-ups from the state. He has promised not to exploit Yasuni National Park, a protected reserve said to contain thousands of unique animal and plant species.

Lucio Gutiérrez (January 21 Patriotic Society Party): A former army colonel, Lucio Gutierrez, 55, was part of a popular upheaval that forced former president Jamil Mahuad from power in 2001. The following year Gutiérrez ran for president on a left-wing platform and won, but then left Mahuad’s policies intact. He was impeached in 2005 and temporarily exiled. His Sociedad Patriotica party still enjoys wide support in Ecuador’s eastern Amazon region.

Alberto Acosta (Plurinational Union of the Left): Once Correa’s right-hand man, Alberto Acosta, 64, is a far-left intellectual with strong support among Ecuador’s social movements. He served as minister of energy under Correa and later presided over the Constitutional Assembly that re-wrote Ecuador’s constitution in 2008. Before falling out with Correa, Acosta authored the Yasuni ITT initiative.

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