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Leftist sits tight for Ecuador presidential victory

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Quito (AFP)

Leftist Lenin Moreno was crossing his fingers Monday for outright victory in Ecuador's presidential vote, but risked being forced into a runoff that could shift the country to the right.

Sunday's vote was a test of the legacy of outgoing President Rafael Correa, Moreno's more hardline ally and an outspoken critic of the United States.

As the last ballots were being counted, Moreno, 63, hoped to top 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point lead, which would spare him a runoff on April 2.

But with nearly 88 percent of the votes counted, he was still short with 39.09 percent, against 28.28 percent for his conservative competitor, Guillermo Lasso.

Moreno called for his side to "cross our fingers" for a first-round victory.

"It seems to me perfectly likely that we will reach the 40 percent we need," he told cheering supporters late Sunday.

"This a long-term fight. We are going to win this battle."

The president of the electoral council, Juan Pablo Pozo, said he expected to announce complete results by midday Monday.

Votes were still being counted in the province of Manabi and overseas, two strongholds of support for Correa's side.

- Assange -

If Moreno wins he will be the first wheelchair-user to become president in Ecuador, and one of few such leaders ever to do so.

His legs were paralyzed when he was shot in a robbery in 1998.

If ex-banker Lasso wins the presidency, another pillar of the Latin American left will swing to the right.

Lasso has also said he will end WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's asylum in Ecuador's London embassy.

Assange is taking refuge there for fear of extradition to the United States for publishing leaked documents that embarrassed Washington.

- Economic crossroads -

Analysts said voters fed up with Correa may rally behind the conservative candidate in the second round.

"Any party could beat the governing one in the second round, because there is major resistance to, and rejection of, the government," said political scientist Paolo Moncagatta of Quito's San Francisco University.

Supporters of ex-banker Lasso crowded outside the electoral council's offices in a vigil to demand transparency in the vote-count.

The busting of a commodities boom has hastened the end of two decades of leftist predominance in Latin America.

Argentina, Brazil and Peru have all switched to conservative governments since late 2015.

- Oil -

Economist Correa, 53, is reaching the end of 10 years and three terms in power.

He initially oversaw a boom in the country of 16 million people, but the economy shrank 1.7 percent last year.

"The big factor in the vote was the economic crisis," said Alberto Acosta-Burneo, a consultant at the Spurrier Group.

Previously under Correa, "people felt like their lives had improved but it is no longer so."

Ecuador exports half a million barrels of oil a day. Correa used the wealth to fund social welfare schemes and public works.

But oil prices have plunged over the past three years.

Teacher Sofia Tinajero, 32, said she ended her support for Correa's side in this election and voted for a change.

"I have witnessed authoritarianism and a very great social decline," she said.

But another voter, Nora Molina, 53, judged "these past 10 years have shown how the country has advanced. I think we are going to keep that going."

Voters were deciding whether to continue Correa's tax-and-spend policies or give Lasso a mandate to cut spending and taxes.

Lasso has slammed Correa's allies over alleged links to corruption.

Correa blamed Lasso in part for a 1999 financial crisis when he was economy minister.

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