Both candidates in Ecuador’s presidential runoff claimed victory Sunday in what’s shaping up to be a nail-biter race that could either further tilt Latin America toward the right following a string of conservative victories or reinforce President Rafael Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution.”
Three exit polls, including one by a firm that accurately predicted the results of the first-round, showed former banker Guillermo Lasso winning the race by a slim margin of between 3 and 6 percentage points. But a fourth survey gave Correa’s hand-picked successor, Lenin Moreno, a 4-point edge.
A jubilant Lasso told supporters in Guayaquil that he would free political prisoners and heal divisions created by 10 years of iron-fisted rule by Correa. Before the election, he said he would evict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London within 30 days of taking office.
“Today a new Ecuador has been born,” Lasso said to loud shouts of “freedom” and “get out thieves.”
“Behind us are those dark pages of hatred among Ecuadoreans,” he said.
But Moreno put his best face forward and urged supporters to wait for official results that he said would confirm his “triumph.”
As the night dragged on, the mood at his Quito campaign headquarters grew more subdued while supporters of Lasso began amassing outside the National Electoral Council to guard against what they fear could be attempts to steal an eventual victory. Moreno supporters gathered at another point just beyond the four-block security perimeter.
Correa took to Twitter to urge calm, saying that with such disparate results among the exit polls someone was “lying.”
The president cast his vote shortly after polls opened early Sunday, saying that the contest would be “very important” for determining whether the small Andean nation of 16 million takes a turn for the right or if “progressive tendencies resume their force.”
With Ecuador’s economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low and with a majority of citizens stating in surveys that they are eager for change, analysts had been anticipating that Ecuadoreans would back Lasso and join the growing list of Latin American nations shifting to the right.
Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno had inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country’s 1999 banking crisis.
“We know how to put ourselves in your shoes, understand your dreams and wishes,” Moreno said in a final campaign announcement.
Authorities are deploying thousands of officers to beef up security at vote-processing centers around the country after a contentious first-round election on Feb. 19, in which Moreno fell just short of the required threshold to avoid a runoff.
The vote count dragged on for several days before the official results were announced, provoking accusations of fraud from both sides and angry protests that have injected an unusual degree of volatility in the election results.
Fearing a contested election, church leaders have appealed to both campaigns to accept whatever the results.
Lasso has put forward a pro-business agenda aimed at attracting foreign investment, reducing taxes and generating more jobs and in recent days drew comparisons between continuing a Correa-style government and going down the same path as socialist Venezuela.
After casting his ballot in his native Guayaquil, Lasso said he is vote “for change, so Ecuador can recover its freedom.”
Lasso has benefited from ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa’s government and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador, but analysts say he has not connected with lower-income voters.
While Lasso has said he would evict Assange from the embassy where Ecuador granted him asylum in 2012 to prevent his extradition to Sweden, Moreno has said he could stay, increasing international interest in Sunday’s vote.