Ecuador to elect new president in left-right battle

Quito (AFP) –

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Ecuadorans will vote on Sunday to elect a new president with a straight choice between socialist Andres Arauz and conservative Guillermo Lasso to take over the mantle of the beleaguered Lenin Moreno.

The next president will begin his term on May 24 with the country suffering from an economic crisis badly aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Opinion polls have the two contenders neck and neck in a classic left versus right battle for control of the country.

Economist Arauz, 36, is a virtual unknown but topped February's first round of voting on the back of support from his mentor and former president Rafael Correa.

Former banker Lasso, 65, is a seasoned politician who is hoping it will be third time lucky in his presidential bid having twice finished second: to Correa in 2013 and Moreno in 2017.

Polls open at 7:00 am (1200 GMT) with voting obligatory for 13.1 million people in the tiny oil-producing South American country of 17.4 million.

Whoever wins will have to manage an economic crisis exasperated by a 7.8 percent contraction in GDP in 2020.

Overall debt is almost $64 billion -- 63 percent of GDP -- of which $45 billion (45 percent of GDP) is external debt.

At the same time, there is the pandemic to manage after more than 340,000 people contracted Covid-19 with over 17,000 of them dying.

- 'Technical draw' -

Arauz, the candidate from the Union of Hope coalition, topped the first round with almost 33 percent of the vote, some 13 percentage points ahead of Lasso, from the Creating Opportunities movement.

Although barely known before he ran for the top office, Arauz is the protege of Correa, who would have been his running mate but for an eight-year conviction for corruption.

Correa lives in exile in Belgium, where his wife was born, and he is able to avoid his prison sentence. But his influence on Ecuadoran politics remains strong.

This election is not so much left versus right, but rather "Correism versus anti-Correism," political scientist Esteban Nicholls of Simon Bolivar University told AFP.

The two candidates can barely be separated in polls.

The last poll by Market predicted a "technical draw" on Sunday with Arauz garnering 50 percent and Lasso getting 49 percent.

The election is "totally uncertain," Market director Blasco Penaherrera told AFP.

However, Penaherrera said that former banker Lasso's "growth" is "vastly superior" to that of economist Arauz.

- Uncertain indigenous vote -

Lasso scraped into the runoff by less than half a percentage point ahead of indigenous candidate Yaku Perez, who contested the result and claimed to have been the victim of fraud.

It took weeks for Lasso's second place to be confirmed. Ahead of the runoff, electoral officials have decided to abandon the usual rapid count to avoid potentially misleading results.

Socialist Perez, whose Pachakutik indigenous movement is the second-largest bloc in parliament, picked up around 20 percent of the vote in the first round.

Pachakutik has refused to back either candidate in the second round, leaving uncertainty over which way its supporters will turn.

The number of undecided voters following the chaotic first round was about 35 percent but that's since shrunk to eight percent.

But this "really changed in just a few weeks," said Penaherrera.

- 'Change needed' -

Political scientist Santiago Basabe, of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, believes Arauz has the edge.

"While either could win, it seems to me that Arauz has more chance," said Basabe.

However, "there's a feeling that to a certain extent, it doesn't matter who wins, we just need an immediate change," said Pablo Romero, an analyst at Salesiana University.

Should Lasso win he would face a tough job with Arauz's leftist coalition the largest bloc in Congress.

"There will be permanent tension with the executive. There's almost no chance of the reforms the country needs."