Clear victory for Correa will have him in frontline to succeed Chavez
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, one of Latin America's most outspoken leaders is almost certain to win re-election on Sunday by an ample margin catapulting him as the most probable successor of Venezuela’s ailing Hugo Chavez and the populist movement in Latinamerica.
The combative US-trained economist has won strong support by using windfall oil earnings to give cash handouts to some 2 million people and expand access to healthcare and education.
Correa has a lead of as much as 50 percentage points over the nearest of his seven rivals in opinion polls. His confrontation with oil companies and Wall Street investors has helped him drum up nationalist fervour.
He took a leave of absence from the presidency to focus on campaigning, and for the past six weeks he has been tirelessly visiting windswept Andean hamlets, sweltering Amazon towns and urban slums in the country of 15 million.
We already have a president, we have Rafael! is a common chant at his campaign rallies. His rivals mostly drive through shantytowns in convoys, while saturating local media with campaign ads.
Three respected pollsters show the 49-year-old Correa, who caught the world's attention last year by granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as the clear front runner.
The Perfiles de Opinion polling firm recently showed him with 62% support. To avoid a second round, Correa needs to win 50% of the vote or 40% with a lead of 10 percentage points over the second-placed candidate.
Correa has been in power for six years and a victory on Sunday would give him another four years. In the decade before he came to office, three presidents were ousted by military coups and street protests.
His re-election could help shore up the ALBA bloc of populist leaders in Latin America. Venezuela’s Chavez has been the anti-US group's undisputed leader, but he is fighting cancer and may not be able to hang onto power. Further more the Castro brothers in Cuba are in their late eighties and with precarious health.
Supporters admire Correa's unflinching style of government, but others are put off by his impetuous manner and his penchant for confrontation with reporters and bankers.
People say he's arrogant and mean, but he gets things done, said political science professor Franklin Ramirez. The key is that people can see the difference between political instability and a paralysis of the state in the past, with the extraordinary dynamism they see nowadays.
However adversaries say constitutional changes that Correa pushed through in 2008 allowed him to reshape state institutions to boost his power while placing allies in key posts. They accuse him of using a referendum to bypass a hostile Congress on an overhaul of the justice system.
Opponents also allege that Correa has accumulated power and persecuted private media in an ongoing dispute that has included launching several libel suits against critical newspapers and reporters. Correa insists he is a victim of the media.
He ended a 2012 interview by WikiLeaks' Assange with the phrase Welcome to the club of the persecuted, comparing his own experience with the media to the former computer hacker's battle to avoid extradition from Britain.
If Correa wins on Sunday, his main challenge will be to win over investors who have turned their backs on Ecuador. In 2008, Correa's government defaulted on 3.2 billion dollars in foreign debt and in 2010 he forced oil companies to sign new contracts giving more revenue to the government.