Economist Maintains Strong Lead in Ecuador Vote

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

QUITO, Ecuador, Nov. 27 -- Electoral officials Monday reported that economist Rafael Correa maintained a comfortable lead over his opponent in Sunday's presidential election, supporting several exit polls that had earlier predicted his victory.

With nearly 86 percent of ballots counted, Correa led with 68.9 percent of the vote, while banana baron Alvaro Noboa had 31.1 percent. Correa had already claimed victory and named several cabinet members on Sunday, but Noboa said Monday that he would not concede defeat until all votes were counted.

Correa, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, reiterated Monday that he would not renew U.S. access to a military base in Ecuador and would reject a U.S.-backed hemispheric free-trade agreement. Earlier, he had said he planned to renegotiate the country's foreign debt and rewrite the constitution.

Many of Correa's economic and foreign policy views are similar to those advocated by other leaders in the region, including Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, whom Correa describes as a friend. Correa said his first act after a January inauguration would be to call for a popular referendum to convene a constituent assembly. Both Venezuela and Bolivia have convened similar assemblies in recent years to rewrite constitutions that their presidents said encouraged the consolidation of power in the hands of traditional political elites.

"The people have given us a clear mandate," Correa, 43, said Monday during a televised news conference in Guayaquil. "We want deep political reform."

Correa is hoping that a popular referendum will allow him to convene an assembly and effectively dismantle Ecuador's legislature, where he has few allies and which he has described as being in the hands of a "political mafia."

"It's not going to be easy, but a constituent assembly is necessary," said Wilson Echeverría, 40, a musician in Quito who voted for Correa. "The people want change, and that's not possible with the Congress we have now."

Mitchell Seligson, who studies public confidence in political systems as director of the Latin America Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University, said that confidence among Ecuadorans in their political system is among the lowest in the region. No president has served a full term in a decade, with the last three elected leaders ousted by Congress or street protests. Correa's call to dismantle the system and create a new constitution reflects that broader disenchantment, Seligson said.

Seligson cited widespread corruption as one of the root causes of the public's lack of confidence in the political system.

International investors recoiled at Correa's apparent victory Monday, sending the country's risk rating upward and its bonds to a six-week low. After accepting victory Sunday night, Correa told reporters he was not concerned about risk indicators, but rather about improving social programs in a country of 13 million where more than half of the population lives in poverty.

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