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Opposites Qualify for Ecuador Runoff

A leftist economist and a billionaire open-market advocate are the top vote-getters in the first round of the presidential election.

October 16, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

QUITO, Ecuador — Banana billionaire Alvaro Noboa edged left-wing economist Rafael Correa in the presidential election's first round Sunday, setting up a runoff between two candidates who are bitter rivals and polar opposites, according to partial results.

With nearly two-thirds of the ballots counted, Noboa had 26.8% of the vote and Correa 22.4%, according to electoral authorities.

Noboa, whose family owns Ecuador's largest banana plantation, closed what many pollsters saw as a 5 or 6 percentage-point deficit to Correa in the campaign's final days.

A loser in two previous runs at the presidency, Noboa, 55, gave a preview of the campaign rhetoric leading up to the Nov. 26 runoff, describing Correa in a TV interview Sunday as a "spoiled child" who is "pro-terrorism, pro-communism and pro-Cuba."

Correa, a 43-year-old economics professor with a doctorate from the University of Illinois, said if Noboa won, he would turn Ecuador into a private banana plantation. Correa added that his campaign's exit polls showed he won by 5 percentage points, and he called the early results "a fraud foretold by the oligarchy."

Correa had risen in polls from fifth place in July to first early this month. He ran an anti-establishment and anti-U.S. campaign in which he made no effort to conceal his friendship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Washington's most outspoken critic in the region.

But Noboa, whose net worth was estimated at more than $1 billion by Forbes magazine in 1997, spent lavishly on his campaign, and there were reports of widespread giveaways, including wheelchairs for the disabled and cash handouts to the poor. Correa also spent large sums in a campaign that many speculated was financed partly by Chavez.

Simon Pachano, a teacher at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Quito, the capital, said the results reflected widening political polarization.

"Both Noboa and Correa ran anti-party, anti-system campaigns, and there is no middle ground between the two extremes. This sets up a dangerous scenario for Ecuador," Pachano said.

The ideological divide between the two front-runners is wide. Noboa, a proponent of open-market policies, promises housing and health subsidies and the creation of 3 million jobs.

Correa promises a reformist "citizen revolution" modeled in some aspects after the Chavez agenda.

He is a harsh critic of President Bush, opposes unregulated trade and supported the Ecuadorean government's seizure of Occidental Petroleum's Block 15 oil field in May. Occidental has taken the case to international arbitration, and Correa promises to ignore any order to compensate the oil company for the takeover.

Although some observers think Correa would become more moderate as president, others expect him to follow through on the "citizen revolution" he is proposing. He caused tremors on Wall Street by threatening to default on Ecuador's foreign debt, something the government has done three times since the early 1980s.

Nine million Ecuadoreans went to the polls Sunday to choose among 13 candidates vying to become the eighth president this unstable country will have seen in 11 years.

Three presidents have been forced from office since 1996. Since the nation's founding as a republic in 1830, presidents have served an average of 20 months.

Ecuadoreans have rewritten their constitution 19 times, and Correa has proposed a constitutional assembly to draft another and "reinvent Ecuador."

Interviews with voters Sunday indicated that they were torn between the desire to reform their dysfunctional government and a wish to maintain stability and economic well-being.

"We are tired of corrupt politicians who steal all the money they can and leave the country in poverty," said retired customs worker Leon Espinosa, a Correa supporter.

Garbage truck driver Walter Zambrano said he cast a vote for Noboa, saying the candidate's experience in business and in two previous presidential campaigns was a plus. "Correa may speak pretty words, but Noboa is more balanced and cares more for the underprivileged," he said.

Noboa's family-owned Corporacion Noboa operates Clementina, a 25,000-acre plantation 45 miles north of the coastal city of Guayaquil that is one of the world's largest banana producers and exporters. The company also owns auto manufacturing and shipping interests and a Coca-Cola bottling operation.

As much as Correa's proposed "radical transformation" of Ecuador's political system appealed to some voters, it also raised fears of months of chaos and political polarization. His opposition to open-market policies also worried the business community, which relies on the U.S. export market for nearly half of all foreign shipments.

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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