Presidential Race In Ecuador Heads To Second Round

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 16, 2006

QUITO, Ecuador, Oct. 15 -- A banana magnate who portrays himself as a friend of the poor and a young economist close to Venezuela's mercurial leader, Hugo Chávez, will face each other in a presidential election runoff on Nov. 26 after neither obtained enough votes to win in a first round Sunday in this chronically unstable country.

With 60 percent of the vote counted, Alvaro Noboa, 55, one of the wealthiest men in Latin America, had 27 percent of the vote to 22 percent for Rafael Correa, 43, a charismatic former finance minister who has sharply criticized the Bush administration.

The election in this tiny, mountainous country of 13 million has attracted widespread attention beyond its borders because of the rapid rise of Correa, an economist who promises to overturn Ecuador's old economic order and calls for a constitutional assembly that could dissolve the National Congress.

Calling himself a friend of Chávez, who has become Washington's leading antagonist in Latin America, Correa says his government would shutter a U.S. military base in Ecuador, crack down on multinational companies and possibly declare a moratorium on payment of the country's $10 billion foreign debt. If he wins next month, he will join a growing list of left-leaning leaders elected in Latin America since 2002.

"He's prepared, and we need someone who knows how to run things," said Fanny Ceron, 38, a nurse, moments after casting her ballot for Correa. "We need someone who comes from the people. The others are just moneyed people. They want power. They have the money, but no ideas."

Correa would face a furious challenge from Noboa, who has spent $2.5 million on his campaign, far more than any other candidate, casting himself as a populist. This is Noboa's third try at the presidency. He lost in 1998 and 2002. At campaign rallies, Noboa gives away T-shirts, wheelchairs and even cash. He also pays for mobile medical clinics run by his wife, Anabella Azín, a physician who also has political aspirations.

His campaign ads have attacked Correa as a dangerous extremist who would align Ecuador with Venezuela and Fidel Castro's Cuba, bringing more instability to a country that has had seven presidents in 10 years.

"Correa is selling hope," said Blasco Peñaherrera, a businessman and president of the Quito Chamber of Commerce, who does not support Correa. "I'm sure his opponents are going to sell panic."

Support for Noboa surged in the past three weeks. He was a distant fourth as recently as Sept. 20, according to the Cedatos-Gallup polling firm in Quito. But Noboa, who falls to his knees before supporters and invokes God, quickly gained and in recent days surpassed Leon Roldos, a former vice president who had led in the campaign but began a fast slide last month.

On Sunday evening as results began to come in, Noboa charged that Ecuador would become another Cuba under Correa. "Rafael Correa's posture is communist, dictatorial," he said on Ecuadoran television. He also denied that he employs child laborers on his banana farms -- an accusation first made in a 124-page Human Rights Watch report in 2002.

"I don't have child workers in my companies," he said.

Noboa once made the Forbes 500 list of the world's richest people, and in the past he frequently boasted about his friendship with well-known American luminaries. A slick campaign has side-stepped questions about his businesses and has resonated with people such as Jorge Teran, 46, a technician who is fed up with a lack of progress in Ecuador. He said he likes Noboa's plans to increase the state oil company's production and his promise to build affordable housing and create jobs. Teran also said he feels Noboa may benefit from divine intervention.

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