AFP - Oil-rich Ecuador is at an economic and political crossroads in corruption-tainted general elections tomorrow.
After a decade of leftist rule, voters must decide whether to follow Argentina, Brazil and Peru in switching to a conservative government.
Leftist economist Rafael Correa, 53, has overseen a rise in the fortunes of the country of 16 million. But he is not up for re-election.
The size of the country’s economy has nearly doubled to US$100 billion since Correa took over in 2007. But it shrank by 1.7 percent last year.
Correa blames a ‘perfect storm’ of falling oil prices and weakening currencies in neighboring countries that have made Ecuador’s exports less competitive.
Correa’s ally and would-be successor Lenin Moreno, 64, promises more of the same tax-and-spend social policies.
“The Ecuadoran people have affection (for us) and are determined to continue with this process,” Moreno told AFP on Wednesday at a campaign event.
But in an uncertain contest, Moreno faces a challenge from ex-banker Guillermo Lasso, 61.
Lasso has vowed to cut spending and taxes, lure foreign investment and create a million jobs.
The third-placed candidate is conservative former lawmaker Cynthia Viteri, 51.
She and Lasso have each indicated that if elected they may cease to grant asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy to fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Ecuador exports half a million barrels of oil a day. Correa used the wealth to fund social welfare schemes and public works.
He called it “21st-century socialism.” But oil prices have plunged over the past three years.
Correa is accused of failing to save any petrodollars for a rainy day, and of hampering businesses with high taxes and duties.
“There has been much progress but unfortunately he has not taken advantage of the bonanza,” Alberto Acosta-Burneo, an economist at the Spurrier Group consultancy, told AFP.
“When Correa came to power he promised to diversify the production model, but he is leaving behind a country in which it is very difficult to produce things.”
Correa blames Lasso in part for a banking crisis that struck the country in 1999.
Lasso has slammed Correa’s allies over alleged links to corruption. “We have to vote for change to fight against corruption,” Lasso said at a campaign rally on Wednesday.
Scandals at state oil firm Petroecuador and Brazilian building firm Odebrecht have dragged in officials close to the government.
Correa has accused rivals of political dirty tricks aiming to smear his side. Opinion polls indicate Moreno will likely win Sunday’s first-round vote.
But if his lead is not big enough, he will face a runoff on April 2 against a conservative rival, most likely Lasso, 61. Polls show a high ratio of undecided voters.
“Any party could beat the governing one in the second round, because there is major resistance to and rejection of the government,” said Political scientist Paolo Moncagatta of Quito’s San Francisco University. But “it is a mistake to underestimate the strength of support for Correa’s side,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “Many Ecuadorans think Correa has done a good job.”
Sunday’s election is a test for the resilience of the Latin American left. A wave of leftist governments swept the continent from 1998.
Correa says a strong leftist movement is needed to resist the new Republican US President Donald Trump’s hard line on Latin American migration and trade.
But the so-called “pink tide” has ebbed since late 2015. Correa hoped the vote “could be the breaking point to put an end to this conservative restoration.”