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Ecuadoreans Face a Stark Choice in Presidential Election

The candidates seemingly could not be more different -- the country's richest man and a left-leaning former army colonel.

November 24, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador -- The giant Quaker Oats man smiled gently down from a wall at the political debauchery beneath him.

At an enormous industrial grain mill owned by the country's richest man, a candidate for president, thousands of partisans gathered last week to celebrate the close of the political campaign.

In the shadow of 15-story-high grain elevators and flammable-gas warning signs, supporters of Alvaro Noboa danced, drummed and waved bright yellow flags. There were scantily clad dancers, men on horseback and a mariachi band blaring into the humid night in this sweaty port city.

It was only a taste of the spectacle that has been this year's presidential race in Ecuador, where voters head to the polls today to choose the country's sixth president in six years.

Whoever wins will confront a long list of economic and social problems. The oil-rich country has one of the highest per-capita debt loads in Latin America, with more than 40% of the budget going to service external loans.

Voters could not have a more stark choice of candidates. Lucio Gutierrez, 45, is a former army colonel and coup leader who grew up in the impoverished highlands. Noboa, 52, is a banana magnate worth nearly $1 billion who has an apartment on New York's Park Avenue.

The contrast has left many voters cold and the contest in a near deadlock, according to the latest opinion poll. Gutierrez maintained a slight lead over Noboa -- 39% to 38% -- in a poll by Informe Confidencial released late Saturday. The poll had a 3-percentage-point margin of error.

The latest numbers came as a surprise, because Gutierrez had been comfortably ahead in the weeks leading up to today's vote. Poll director Santiago Nieto said the dramatic shift reflected a media onslaught by Noboa, who outspent Gutierrez in the final week, saturating the air with negative ads. Gutierrez lost the most ground with women, a seeming result of Noboa's contention that Gutierrez once beat his wife.

"This is a shock," Nieto said.

Still, a quarter of voters have said they plan to rip up their ballots or leave them blank. Voting is mandatory in Ecuador.

"I have no idea who I'm going to choose," said Fernando Bravo, a 32-year-old engineer, as he sat at a riverside walkway here last week. "It will have to be the lesser of two evils."

Uncertainty surrounds both men, neither of whom has held elected political office.

Many voters fear that Gutierrez could be another Hugo Chavez, the left-leaning Venezuelan president whose divisive leadership has plunged his country into chaos.

But voters seem equally uncertain about Noboa, whose inherited wealth has drawn comparisons to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate.

"The big problem with Noboa is that he brings together economic and political power," said Simon Pachano, head of the political science program at FLACSO, an Ecuadorean think tank. "How he keeps those two apart will be difficult."

The candidate is not related to current President Gustavo Noboa.

Fears about Gutierrez's extremism seem overblown. He has moderated his tone since the primaries, when he depended upon an alliance of left-leaning indigenous parties, unions and a small Marxist party to reach the second round of voting.

Analysts here rejected the idea that Ecuador is joining Venezuela and Brazil as the latest Latin American country to swing left after nearly a decade's embrace of open markets and conservative governments.

"People here haven't been satisfied by the past governments. It's as simple as that," said Nieto, the polling-firm director. "They're asking: 'Where is my bread, where is my car, where is my house?' "

While neither candidate has been particularly explicit about his political program, their tone in recent days has been surprisingly centrist and similar.

Both remain committed to entering an Americas-wide free trade agreement and to the process of dollarization, begun two years ago when Ecuadoreans traded in their national currency for U.S. dollars to stabilize the economy.

Since both lack strong support in Congress, either might find himself forced to rule by consensus rather than popular mandate.

On the campaign trail, both have made a series of populist promises.

Gutierrez says he will tackle corruption. He regularly appears in an ersatz, olive-green army uniform to remind voters of his role in the popular coup in January 2000, which deposed President Jamil Mahuad amid an economic crisis and accusations of corruption.

Noboa appears in television commercials with a gaily colored model home, promising to build 200,000 of them for the poor at a cost to residents of $48 a month. He promises more jobs, better health care and more schools to make an "empire" of Ecuador, one of Latin America's poorer countries.

Each candidate, in interviews with The Times, strove to portray himself as a forward-looking progressive, equally attuned to the needs of the 70% of the population living in poverty and the demands of international markets.

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