Polls have closed in Ecuador after voters headed out in large numbers to pick a new president in an election held under the shadow of a severe economic crisis and discontent over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sunday’s vote will see the South American nation’s 13.1 million voters choose a successor to unpopular socialist President Lenin Moreno, as well as elect lawmakers to fill 137 seats in the National Assembly.
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Opinion polls show left-wing economist Andres Arauz and conservative Guillermo Lasso the clear frontrunners among 16 presidential candidates, with Indigenous rights campaigner Yaku Perez in a distant third place.
Experts say it is unlikely that any candidate will reach the 40 percent support and at least a 10-point lead over their opponents that is required for an outright win. This means a runoff between the top two challengers is likely to be held on April 11.
The elections council is expected to release an official quick count between 7pm and 8pm local time (00:00-01:00 GMT on Monday).
An exit poll by local pollster Clima Social showed Arauz with 36.2 percent of the vote compared with 21.7 percent for Lasso and 16.7 percent for Perez. A second poll by Cedatos showed Arauz with 34.9 percent of the vote, compared with 21.0 percent for Lasso and 18.0 percent for Perez.
Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from neighbouring Colombia, said if early exit polling numbers “are indeed correct or close to correct, then we will definitely see a run-off next April for these presidential elections, as expected in Ecuador”.
National Electoral Council President Diana Atamaint had earlier declared the start of election day in a ceremony in the capital, Quito, after polls opened at 7am (12:00 GMT). “Today Ecuador wins and democracy wins,” she said.
Voters arrived at polling stations wearing face masks as a precaution against COVID-19 at a time when the country is battling a resurgence of infections, which has aggravated Ecuador’s economic troubles. So far, the pandemic has claimed some 15,000 lives and infected more than 257,000.
Ecuadorians waited in long lines to cast their ballots, with delays caused in part by coronavirus-related limits on the number of people allowed inside at one time.
“Voters are getting discouraged by the very long lines,” said National Electoral Council Vice President Enrique Pita during a televised update on how the vote was proceeding.
Moreno, who is not seeking re-election, will end his single term in office drastically unpopular. His approval rating has long been hovering at about 7 percent, down from 77 percent in his first months in office.
The outgoing president was elected in 2017 as the successor to Rafael Correa, who raised public spending, cut ties with international lending institutions and supported integration with other socialist countries in the region.
But shortly after he was elected, Moreno changed course and pursued more business-friendly policies, such as slashing taxes for international mining investors and securing loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to fund Ecuador’s foreign debt and fiscal deficit.
Arauz, a protege of Correa, has promised to make $1bn in direct cash payments to families and to disavow the conditions of a $6.5bn IMF financing package.
“I am at ease and encouraged by the high voter turnout,” Arauz tweeted on Saturday afternoon. “It is a day of celebration, of national unity and of hope to take back the future of the country.”
His main rival, Lasso, has promised to crack down on corruption – a nod to Correa, who was found guilty in 2020 of violating campaign finance laws, and the Moreno government – and proposed an international anti-corruption commission.
At least nine public hospitals are being investigated for embezzlement during the pandemic.
Running in his third presidential race, free-market advocate Lasso has said he would create a million jobs in a year. The former banker will likely stick to the austerity policies adopted by Moreno, who has had to rein in spending in exchange for IMF loans to bolster the oil-producing country’s faltering dollar-based economy.
Pollsters say the possibility of low voter turnout due to the pandemic could dent his support.
Perez, the first Indigenous contender in 15 years, is polling at 12 percent. The remaining 12 candidates are all at below 4 percent, including Ximena Pena, the only woman on the list.
Emiliano Pibaque, a taxi driver in Quito, said he planned to vote for Arauz. In the last election, he had backed Moreno hoping things would improve – but instead, he said, they have worsened.
“Because they say that Correa stole and [did] many other things, but in fact he did carry out many public works projects while the current government hasn’t done anything except persecute opponents,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ecuador is mired in debt as the profits of an oil boom during the Correa presidency dried up under Moreno as the price of crude crashed.
The national debt rose from 26 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 44 percent during Moreno’s term.
The coronavirus pandemic has piled on the pressure, with some $6.4bn in losses attributed directly to the health crisis, according to government data.
Ecuador’s economy is forecast to contract 8.9 percent in 2020, while unemployment reached 8.6 percent last September – more than doubling in nine months.