Socialist candidate Lenin Moreno had a slim lead Sunday in Ecuador’s presidential runoff, setting up a tense wait for the final count in a race that could change the political map of Latin America.Moreno, the designated heir to a decade of President Rafael Correa’s “21st-century socialism,” had 51.07% of the vote to 48.93% for conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso, with 94.2% of districts reporting, said the National Electoral Council.
Both candidates claimed victory on the basis of conflicting exit polls, raising fears of a long and ugly fight to decide the winner.
“We will continue this process that has changed Ecuadorans’ lives, especially for the poorest citizens,” Moreno, a wheelchair user paralyzed in a 1998 carjacking, triumphantly told supporters.
“Starting today, Ecuador has a president who is going to promote national unity,” countered Lasso in a speech to his own supporters.
Angry protests followed the first-round vote on February 19, when Moreno came close to winning outright and Lasso supporters cried fraud. His Creating Opportunities party again alleged irregularities Sunday.
The election is being closely watched as a barometer of the political climate in Latin America, where more than a decade of leftist dominance has been waning.
It may also decide the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy since 2012.
Correa presided over an economic boom that has recently gone bust.
“It’s a decisive moment because we’ve had a conservative reaction in recent years,” the outgoing president said after casting his ballot, adding that “the whole world is watching.”
In Latin America, where a so-called “pink tide” of leftist leaders has been ebbing, the vote is seen as crucial.
Argentina, Brazil and Peru have all shifted to the right in recent months, as the region has sunk into recession and leftist leaders have been tarnished by a string of corruption scandals.
Boosted by high prices for its oil exports, Ecuador registered solid economic growth averaging 4.4% per year during the first eight years of Correa’s presidency, before tipping into recession in mid-2015.
Correa won loyal fans among the poor with generous social benefits that helped reduce the poverty rate from 36.7% to 23.3% in this country of 16 million people. But he has also faced accusations of corruption and squandering the windfall of the oil boom.
Moreno, 64, won the first-round vote with 39% to Lasso’s 28%. But Lasso, 61, united the opposition vote behind his promises to create a million jobs and eliminate 14 different taxes.