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Ecuadoreans choose president amid economic turmoil

By Rafael Abuchaibe

BBC Monitoring

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionGuillermo Lasso (centre, in blue, waving) is hoping it will be third time lucky for him

Voters in Ecuador are going to the polls to choose a new president and all members of the National Assembly.

The country is reeling from the Covid pandemic, which has killed 15,000 people in the nation of 17m people.

With the economy in the doldrums, many voters say they are more preoccupied with day-to-day survival than with politics.

Nearly 50% remain undecided on who to opt for out of the 16 presidential candidates, one survey suggests.

What’s the likely outcome?

With so many candidates competing for the top job, it is looking unlikely that any of them will achieve either the 50% of the votes or the 40% with a 10 percentage-point advantage needed to win outright in the first round.

The second round is scheduled to be held on 11 April with the top two candidates going through.

The eventual winner will replace the outgoing president, the embattled centrist Lenín Moreno.

image copyrightEPA

image captionLenín Moreno wanted to end fuel subsidies but had to scrap the plans in the face of mass protests

Mr Moreno ran in – and won – the 2017 election standing as a political ally of Rafael Correa. But he later broke with the former socialist leader and steered Ecuador away from the left-wing alliances Mr Correa had formed with the leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia and back to a more friendly relationship with the United States.

President Moreno has struggled with low popularity levels, buffeted by nationwide protests against planned – and later dropped – fuel price rises in late 2019 and then by the deep economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Who are the frontrunners?

Opinion polls put youthful technocrat and economist Andrés Arauz as narrowly leading the race. Mr Arauz, who has just turned 36, served as a minister under former President Rafael Correa.

image copyrightReuters

image captionAndrés Arauz is leading in the opinion polls

Mr Correa governed from 2007 to 2017 and was sentenced last year in absentia for corruption and is banned from any political role for 25 years. Mr Arauz is viewed as Mr Correa’s protégé.

Closely behind Mr Arauz in the polls is the conservative banker-turned-politician Guillermo Lasso.

Mr Lasso, 65, is running for the presidency for the third time after losing to Mr Correa in 2013 and to the outgoing president, Lenín Moreno, in 2017.

image copyrightEPA

image captionYaku Pérez wants to become the country’s first indigenous president

In third place in the pre-election polls is 51-year-old indigenous leader and environmental advocate Yaku Pérez.

If elected, Mr Pérez would become the first indigenous president in a country where fewer than 10% of the population identify as indigenous.

A way of out the crisis

Ecuadoreans say their main concern in the election is how the new leader will tackle the country’s crippling health and economic crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic.

media captionEcuadorean journalist Blanca Moncada was on the front line of the Covid-19 crisis in her home town of Guayaquil

Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, creating a climate of uncertainty that newspaper El Universo said could fuel abstention in the voting.

“The economic crisis generated by the pandemic, unemployment and the fear of potential infections are some of the factors […] that have provoked disinterest in the election,” the daily reported.

While promising to get a grip on the Covid-19 crisis, the leading candidates have also pledged to work to revitalise the economy and lift Ecuadoreans out of poverty.

Mr Arauz said he would increase financial aid and public spending to rekindle economic growth, pledging to give $1,000 (£733) each to one million female heads of household, while providing $3bn to local governments, and subsidies and credits for the public sector.

Given Ecuador’s already high indebtedness and the recession caused by the coronavirus, some analysts question whether such proposals are feasible.

Many also wonder how Mr Arauz would handle Ecuador’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which before the pandemic struck had recommended austerity measures and spending cuts.

Mr Lasso, a former banker, has promised to try and attract increased foreign investment to Ecuador, raise the nation’s oil production and invest in sustainable mining.

But sceptics worry that Ecuador badly lags behind its neighbours in terms of competitiveness.

Mr Pérez is campaigning on a promise of banning mining activity in the country’s highlands and setting limits on new concessions for oil production.

The looming shadow of Rafael Correa

While he is banned from holding political office and is thousands of miles away in his wife’s native country, Belgium, former President Correa’s name has been ever-present in this election.

image copyrightEPA

image captionFormer President Rafael Correa may be abroad, but he still wields a lot of influence

Mr Arauz has made no secret of his political relationship with the ex-leader and his left-wing Citizens’ Revolution movement.

He told local media that if he was elected president, Mr Correa would be “his most trusted adviser” but has rejected suggestions from critics that he is a mere puppet of Correa. He dismissed claims that Mr Correa would “rule by phone” from Belgium.

Mr Lasso has tried to gain voters by representing his rival, Mr Arauz, as part of a “corrupt past” which he told voters he would put an end to.

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