Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ELECTIONS-ECUADOR: Correa Set to Win (But Perhaps Not This Sunday)

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Oct 11 2006 (IPS) - Although Rafael Correa looks set to win Sunday’s presidential elections in Ecuador, pollsters are uncertain as to whether a run-off will be necessary, and in that case, who he would be competing against.

The leading local polling companies (which, however, failed to predict the outcome of the last three elections), say Correa of the Alliance País (AP) has a comfortable lead over the following two candidates – the centre-left León Roldós and right-wing banana tycoon Álvaro Noboa – who are neck and neck.

The latest polls by the Informe Confidencial and Market firms show that the left-leaning Correa has 30 percent ratings, compared to 19 percent for Roldós of the Ethical Network-Democratic Left and 18 percent for Noboa of the Institutional Renewal Party of National Action (PRIAN).

Another polling company, Cedatos, puts Correa’s lead at 37 percent, while it coincides with the other firms with respect to the level of support for his two main rivals.

Correa, 42, a self-professed admirer of Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chávez, is against resuming stalled talks on a free trade agreement with the United States and is opposed to extending a contract that leases an air base and port in the western city of Manta on the Pacific coast to the U.S. military, while he proposes the creation of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Correa has surged ahead in the last 35 days, from a mere nine percent in the polls. Analysts attribute that leap, in part, to his announcement that he would not present candidates to Congress – which he refers to as “the sewer” – in protest against corruption and vested interests.

His harsh criticism of the legislature is in line with public opinion, which in a survey listed parliament among the most corrupt and discredited institutions in the country, with just three percent ratings in terms of credibility.

Support for him also grew after he publicly clashed with León Febres Cordero, the leader of the right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC) who is widely seen as the most influential politician in Ecuador.

Correa has spent over one million dollars in the campaign, making him one of the three big spenders, along with Noboa and PSC candidate Cinthya Viteri, who is fourth in the polls.

With catchy, creative ads that target the middle and upper-middle classes, and especially the young, Correa has become by far the favourite in that sector of the population. Surveys indicate that only 10 percent of his votes will come from the poor.

Some political analysts call that a paradox, as an “anti-establishment” candidate opposed to closer ties with the United States would be expected to have greater backing among lower-income voters.

Hugo Barber with the Perfiles de Opinión polling firm commented to IPS that, unlike in previous elections, “when it was unclear which two candidates would make it to a second round, it would seem today that there will be no surprises as to who will be in first place.”

If no candidate wins an outright majority of votes, or at least 40 percent with a 10 percentage point lead over his nearest rival, a Nov. 26 run-off will be held.

Polibio Córdova of Cedatos and Jaime Durán of Informe Confidencial say a first-round victory is unlikely for Correa, because he seems to be at a standstill in the polls. However, both leave open the possibility that the new president will be elected Sunday, because elections in Ecuador often bring a last-minute twist.

For his part, Barber said that what is unusual in this campaign is that an issue like a referendum for a constituent assembly has taken such a central position. “In other campaigns the basic issues have been employment, public security, or access to housing, so the current debate over a constituent assembly stands out,” he said.

The candidates who have put the constituent assembly issue at the centre of their platforms are Luis Macas of the indigenous Pachakutik Movement, and Correa himself.

According to Barber, “Correa’s popularity arises from the fact that he did not emerge from what is called the ‘partydocracy’ in Ecuador, which is represented by the traditional parties, and especially the Democratic Left and the Social Christian Party.”

“Correa has led an intelligent campaign, focused on attacking the partydocracy and Congress. This has led him to take possession of the constituent assembly debate, and thus leave the other candidates even farther behind,” he argued.

Roldós and Noboa, meanwhile, are fighting for a second-place position on Sunday, with the hope of going to a second-round vote against Correa.

Noboa, Ecuador’s wealthiest man, is running for president for the third time in a row. In 1998 he lost in the run-off against Jamil Mahuad, who was overthrown in January 2000 after junior army officers backed an indigenous uprising. And he was trounced in the 2002 run-off by Lucio Gutiérrez, who was himself toppled by social unrest in April 2005.

In the current campaign, Noboa was in fourth place until last week, when he began to climb in the polls, becoming one of the two candidates most likely to make it to an eventual second round.

Roldós is also a third-time presidential candidate. In 1992, he performed poorly as the candidate for the Ecuadorian Socialist Party (PSE), and placed third in 2002, after Noboa and Gutiérrez.

This year he was front-runner in the polls for several months, until he was surpassed by Correa.

Past Ecuadorian elections show that an unexpected turn of events cannot be ruled out.

Criticism from several of Correa’s rivals and news reports in the last few days, for example, could affect the results of the elections Sunday.

The local press reported that although Correa said he would not present names for the legislative elections, he has openly supported candidates in various provinces, while maintaining his anti-parliament stance only in Pichincha, where Quito is located, and Guayas, whose capital is Guayaquil, the country’s other major city.

But analysts say that what could really hurt Correa, who has a Ph.D in economics from the University of Illinois, are revelations that despite his centre-left stances, among those financing his campaign are Guayaquil multimillionaire Isidro Romero Carbo, former president of the Barcelona football club and the representative of Coca Cola in Ecuador, and Ronald Wright, the owner of Supermaxi, the country’s biggest supermarket chain.

It has also been reported that he has the backing of people with links to former president Gutiérrez, businessmen in favour of a free trade deal with Washington, and politicians tied to sectors that he has lashed out against in the campaign.

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