QUITO – A young leftist backed by a convicted-but-popular former president led the field of 16 candidates in early returns from Ecuador’s presidential election Sunday, which was held under strict sanitary measures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Andrés Arauz, who is supported by former President Rafael Correa — a major force in the troubled Andean nation despite a corruption conviction — will head to an April 11 runoff, though it wasn’t clear hours after polls closed who else might advance. An official quick count showed conservative former banker Guillermo Lasso and indigenous rights and environmental activist Yaku Pérez were in a tight fight for second place.
Arauz got 31.5% of the votes, while Pérez had 20.04% and Lasso had 19.97%, according to the Electoral Council of Ecuador. To win outright, a candidate needed 50% of the vote, or to have at least 40% with a 10-point lead over the closest opponent.
Voters were required to wear masks, bring their own bottle of hand sanitizer and pencil, keep a 5-foot (1.5-meter) distance from others and avoid all personal contact in the polling places. The only time voters were allowed to lower their masks was during the identification process.
Long lines formed at polling places, especially in big cities, where some voters had to wait hours to cast their ballots.
“I don’t care who wins the elections. We are used to thinking that the messiah is coming to solve our lives and no candidate has solved anything for me,” said one voter, Ramiro Loza. “During the quarantine, my income was reduced by 80%, and the politicians did not feed me.”
The winning candidate will have to work to pull the oil-producing nation out of a deepening economic crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The South American country of 17 million people recorded more than 257,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 15,000 deaths related to COVID-19 as of Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Arauz, a former culture minister who attended the University of Michigan, has proposed making the wealthy pay more taxes and strengthening consumer protection mechanisms, public banking and local credit and savings organizations. Arauz, 36, said he would not comply with agreements with the International Monetary Fund.
Arauz could not cast his vote in the capital, Quito, because he was registered to do so in Mexico, where he lived until shortly before his nomination, and he did not change his electoral address.
Pérez's challenge to grab second place surprised some observers as he had trailed behind Arauz and Lasso in pre-election polls.
Perez, 51, is a lawyer and one of the country’s most visible Indigenous leaders. He became governor of an Ecuadorian province in 2019, but he resigned a year later to seek the presidency. During the campaign, the widower and father of two traveled about 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometers) on a bamboo bicycle.
Lasso, 65, was making a third run for the presidency after a long career in business, banking and government. He favors free-market policies and Ecuador’s rapprochement with international organizations. He promised to create more jobs and attract international banks. He also wants to boost the oil, mining and energy sectors through the participation of private entities to replace state financing.
Hovering over the election was the future of Correa, a leftist who is still only 57. He governed from 2007 to 2017 as an ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, both now deceased.
He remains popular among millions of Ecuadorians after overseeing a period of economic growth driven by an oil boom and loans from China that allowed him to expand social programs, build roads, schools and other projects. But he increasingly cracked down on opponents, the press and businesses during his latter stage in office and feuded with Indigenous groups over development projects. His appeal also has been tarnished by a corruption conviction he says was a trumped up product of political vengeance.
Correa was sentenced in absentia in April to eight years in prison for his role in a scheme to extract millions of dollars from businessmen in exchange for infrastructure projects — money allegedly used for political purposes.
That conviction barred him from running as Arauz's vice presidential candidate.
An earlier attempt by Ecuadorian prosecutors to extradite him from Belgium in an unrelated kidnapping case was rejected by Interpol on human rights grounds.
Moreno won office four years ago with the backing of Correa but broke with him, pursuing business-friendly policies as the nation's economy was hit by a slide in oil and commodities prices. While eligible to seek reelection, he chose not to run.
Moreno, after voting, said his government would respect “the will of citizens” and remain vigilant to guarantee that no disturbances took place.
“I hope there will be a second round, where the people who voted for candidates like Yaku Pérez and others can join Lasso and the Correismo will finally end,” voter Andrés Karolys said.
Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano reported this story Quito and AP writer Regina Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.