QUITO, Ecuador — In a stunning turn of events, a left-leaning former army colonel declared victory in Ecuador's presidential election Sunday, just two years after he was jailed for leading a coup.
With 97% of the vote counted, former Col. Lucio Gutierrez had a commanding lead over billionaire banana magnate Alvaro Noboa, 54.4% to 45.6%.
Gutierrez, a political unknown who has never held elected office, ran a campaign short on details and long on promises. One of his main pledges was to fight corruption. Some voters feared that he might pattern his rule after another former coup leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose fiery rhetoric has deeply divided his nation.
As results rolled in Sunday showing him ahead, Gutierrez attempted to reassure his country and the world.
"Ecuadoreans, what you have here is a very centered man, a very calm man, a very tolerant man," he said, asking for unity and promising to lead through consensus. "I want to signal my commitment to human rights, to private property, to the right to life, to the right to education and health."
Gutierrez's apparent victory is the latest sign of the discontent sweeping Latin America after a decade in which more open markets and conservative governments failed to deliver promised improvements in living standards. Both Brazil and Venezuela have elected left-leaning governments recently, and Argentina remains in political turmoil after the collapse of its banking system.
The results in Ecuador are also a sign of increasing unhappiness with traditional political parties in Latin America, which have come to be seen as corrupt machines out of touch with ordinary people.
"I don't believe that ideology was relevant," said Adrian Bonilla, a political analyst who works for a think tank in Quito, the capital. "It was more that he was seen as anti-establishment, someone who was against politics and against the traditional political parties."
Gutierrez's only previous participation in politics was his role in the ouster of former President Jamil Mahuad two years ago amid a banking and corruption crisis. Gutierrez was the most senior military official involved.
His ad hoc political party, stitched together from the support of unions, military officers and a small Marxist party, has only 15 of the 100 seats in Congress, meaning he will have to govern through alliances.
In the first round of voting, Gutierrez's campaign had a distinctly leftist tone. But he veered sharply to the center as Sunday's runoff approached, meeting with International Monetary Fund officials in Washington and reaching out to businessmen and bankers.
He pledged to repay the oil-rich country's international debts and continue the process of dollarization. Ecuador dropped its national currency in favor of the U.S. dollar in 2000. The move prevented economic collapse that year but has made the country's exports less competitive in the region.
Gutierrez also softened his opposition to allowing Washington to use a military base in the coastal town of Manta, saying he would abide by an existing agreement letting U.S. planes conduct anti-drug spying missions from there.
The moves were seen as a positive sign by U.S. foreign policy experts, who say Gutierrez is joining a block of recently elected Andean presidents -- including Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and Alejandro Toledo in Peru -- who have expressed a desire to work with the U.S.
Rather than being a second Chavez, who has been hostile to the United States, analysts said Gutierrez seems likely to become an ally in a region where Washington has long had troubled relationships.
"He's more sophisticated, better educated and has the advantage of being able to see what happened to Chavez," said Richard Feinberg, a UC San Diego professor and Latin America expert. "He has made every effort to distance himself from Chavez."
Ecuador's pronounced regionalism, which divides the country between the more relaxed, liberal voters on the coast and the more traditional, conservative voters in the highlands, also played a role in the outcome.
Noboa, who is from the coast, captured two of every three votes in the region. But that was not enough to overcome Gutierrez, a native of Quito, who won three of every four votes in the highlands.
Though both men adopted similar populist campaign platforms, their biographies offered voters a stark choice.
Gutierrez first came into the public eye on Jan. 21, 2000, when he joined a group of indigenous protesters to briefly overthrow Mahuad's government.
Gutierrez quickly turned over control to a senior commander, then stepped down. Gustavo Noboa, no relation to Alvaro Noboa, was subsequently appointed president, and Gutierrez spent six months in prison.
Rather than expressing regret for his role in the coup during the campaign, Gutierrez made it a selling point. He named his political party after the date of the overthrow and took to wearing a fake green military uniform at campaign rallies.