Socialist Andres Arauz and conservative Guillermo Lasso will compete in the second round of the polls in April.
Quito, Ecuador — Tanks and barbed wire surround the National Electoral Council as Ecuador prepares to choose a new president after a disputed first round of voting and rising tensions between the two candidates ahead of Sunday’s run-off election.
Nearby streets are open, but nearly deserted after the government imposed a “state of exception” that restricts traffic based on licence plate numbers and includes a nightly curfew, both designed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
At the centre of the election: the future of Ecuador’s economy. Recent polls show a close race between Andres Arauz, a left-wing economist who plans to increase the social safety net, and Guillermo Lasso, a right-wing banker who would steer Ecuador towards a more free-market economy.
After an economic crisis that led Ecuador to dollarise its economy in 2000, the nation experienced an extended boom, led in part by a rise in the price of oil, which is the Andean nation’s major export.
According to the World Bank, Ecuador’s gross domestic product rose from $18.3bn in 2000 to $101.7bn in 2014 before levelling off and now declining. The twin shocks of declining oil prices and COVID-19, however, have led to “a significant economic downturn and an increase in poverty, despite government efforts,” according to the World Bank.
Amid rising partisanship, rumours about both presidential candidates have spread like wildfire on social media. Lasso supporters claim that Arauz wants to move the country towards socialism like nearby Venezuela and get rid of the United States dollar.
They claim Arauz wants to create a new national currency, which evokes memories of the hyperinflation that ruined the economy and led to dollarisation two decades ago.
Arauz denies that claim, writing in his campaign materials that he wants to strengthen dollarisation and the Ecuadorian economy in the process.
The current congress, however, takes the idea seriously enough that they are attempting to create legislation to prevent the next president from changing the currency.
Arauz supporters counter that there is a smear campaign against their candidate and allege Lasso is paying Venezuelan refugees to stand in traffic with signs warning motorists to avoid the fate their country suffered and to think hard before they vote for Arauz.
The claims and counterclaims have led to increased tensions ahead of Sunday’s final vote.
Ex-president looms large
For many voters, though, it is not about Lasso or Arauz.
“I’ve never liked Lasso, but I’ll vote for him because I don’t want Correa to return,” Andrea Villarreal, 31, told Al Jazeera. “He isn’t for the people, he’s just a gifted orator who tricked a lot of people.”
Rafael Correa was president from 2007 until 2017 and remains a divisive figure in the country. Correa fled to Belgium after being convicted of corruption and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Arauz is the exiled leader’s chosen successor. Many murals painted around the capital in support of Arauz display the familiar profile of Correa alongside his name, but do not have the actual candidate’s name or face.
“This is a new country ever since Correa was president. A better country,” Fernando Cortez, 65, told Al Jazeera. He wore a T-shirt with Correa’s face and held a flag promoting Arauz on one side and a poster with Arauz dressed as Superman on the other.
For 15 cents, passersby could stop and weigh themselves on a scale he placed in downtown Quito, and he made sure his customers knew who he was voting for as they checked their weight.
“We need a government that is for everyone, not just the rich,” he told a mother while her son stood on the scale. “After Arauz wins, Correa will return, and he can be president again.”
Voting in a pandemic
COVID-19 hospitalisations have more than doubled since the start of the year, according to the Ministry of Health.
Vaccine roll-out has been slow, with barely one percent of the population receiving their first dose. Three health ministers have already resigned since late February, two of them after scandals involving well-connected people receiving their doses out of turn.
The country has registered more than 339,000 confirmed cases and more than 12,000 confirmed deaths (as well as nearly 5,000 probable deaths) so far, according to the Ministry of Health. Testing can be expensive, however, and Ecuador lags behind among South American nations.
After a spike in COVID-19 cases, especially in Quito, the government of outgoing President Lenin Moreno declared a “state of exception” in nine provinces, including Pichincha and Guayas and the two most populous cities, Quito and Guayaquil.
The order went into effect on April 2 and is set to last 30 days. Besides imposing a curfew from 8pm to 5am, the order restricts the sale of alcohol, closes beaches and parks, makes teleworking mandatory where possible, restricts travel between provinces and bans large gatherings.
The decree states that none of these restrictions is designed to limit “political participation or the electoral process”. Nevertheless, both sides point to the decree as an early warning sign that Sunday’s vote may not be fair.
In previous elections, the closing days were full of campaign events to sway late-deciding voters, and current travel restrictions may make it more difficult for some to reach their polling locations.
Getting the pandemic under control is vital to boosting Ecuador’s struggling economy, too. According to data from the International Monetary Fund Ecuador’s economy contracted 7.5 percent last year.
It’s a reality that Aida Cango, 30, who manages a hotel and restaurant in the historic centre of Quito, has seen first hand.
“Our business has been extremely low since we were allowed to reopen in October,” Cango told Al Jazeera. “We used to have 25 to 30 guests a day, and now we only have around six per month.”
The attached restaurant had been popular with Ecuadorians as well, she said, but that business is now nearly non-existent.
“We are losing money every day and I’m not sure how much longer we can stay open,” Cango added.
Whichever candidate wins on Sunday will be tasked with getting Ecuadorians back to work and the economy back on track, two significant challenges. The new president will also inherit a deeply divided country.
Lasso, who finished second in the 2013 and 2017 elections, might have had a better chance if he had the support of the powerful Indigenous movement, whose chosen candidate finished a close third in the first round of voting, which was held on February 7.
In that first round of voting, Arauz received 32.72 percent, Lasso received 19.74 percent and Yaku Perez, the candidate for the Indigenous party, received 19.39 percent, just 32,115 votes less than Lasso.
Claiming fraud and upset that there was no recount, Perez has openly pondered calling for a general strike. Perez has also asked his supporters to void their ballots by marking multiple candidates or damaging them in protest, as voting is mandatory in Ecuador.
Cango, who is Indigenous, plans to do just that.
“Yaku [Perez] was cheated. Now we have two bad choices, and I refuse to support either,” she said. “Both will destroy the environment.”
The remaining candidates want to boost the economy via mining, though there is strong opposition, especially from the Indigenous population and Perez.
The Indigenous movement has fractured in the closing days of the election, with a small number publicly breaking from the party to support one of the two remaining presidential candidates.
Polls will close at 5pm on Sunday (22:00 GMT), with results expected that evening. The new president will assume power on May 24.