Socialist Andres Arauz and conservative Guillermo Lasso will compete in the second round of the polls in April.
Quito, Ecuador – More than 13 million eligible Ecuadorian voters are heading to the polls on Sunday as left-wing economist Andres Arauz goes up against conservative former banker Guillermo Lasso in the country’s presidential runoff.
Arauz finished with 32.7 percent of the vote during the first round of the election in February, while Lasso secured 19.7 percent, narrowly edging out the third-place candidate after a recount.
Polls opened at 7am local time (12:00 GMT) and will close at 5pm (22:00 GMT).
The next president, who will be sworn in on May 24, will have the strenuous task of addressing Ecuador’s deepening economic crisis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, while also inheriting a sluggish vaccine rollout that has been marred by scandals.
President Lenin Moreno, who did not seek re-election, has come under increased scrutiny over his government’s vaccination programme after reports revealed well-connected individuals had been vaccinated before the general public.
On Wednesday, Moreno requested the resignation of his health minister – the third in 40 days – amid complaints that elderly people were waiting in lines for up to eight hours for COVID-19 jabs at various centres in the capital, Quito.
Both Arauz and Lasso have promised to speed up the pace of vaccinations as part of an effort to reactivate the economy. Lasso promised to vaccinate nine million Ecuadorians in the first 100 days of his presidency, while Arauz has said 2.5 million jabs would be administered monthly.
The country has logged at least 342,000 coronavirus cases and surpassed the 17,000-death mark, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
An advocate of freer markets and greater foreign investment, Lasso has also offered to increase the monthly minimum wage from $400 to $500.
Jorge Panchi, a 55-year-old architect who attended Lasso’s final campaign rally in Quito on Wednesday, said he would vote for Lasso because he offers a different approach than that of Moreno and former populist socialist President Rafael Correa.
“In the first 100 days, we want Lasso to provide vaccines to all Ecuadorians and second, to start creating jobs … with international businesses that will invest and generate employment here,” Panchi told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Arauz has proposed a return of social spending seen under the leadership of his mentor, Correa. He also promised to provide $1,000 stimulus cheques to a million struggling Ecuadorian families.
The election is largely seen as a referendum of Correa’s fervent populism, whose shadow still looms over Ecuador.
Much like Moreno, who had previously served as Correa’s vice president, during the 2017 elections, Arauz is expected to carry on his legacy if elected. But Moreno went back on the policies of his former boss and sought economic reforms through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which led to a national anti-austerity strike in October 2019.
“We’re struggling to find work,” said Carlos Ortiz, a 69-year-old oil topographer who supports Correa and said he would vote for Arauz.
“Economic activity has decreased under the current government we have right now,” Ortiz told Al Jazeera.
Recent opinion polls show Arauz and Lasso neck and neck, with Lasso ahead by only a few points in a final Cedatos poll. But analysts expect some voters – up to 20 percent, according to some projections – will spoil their ballots due to lack of support for the two establishment candidates.
Some experts have said the outcome hinges on the votes of supporters of third-place finisher Yaku Perez, an Indigenous and environmental activist who garnered 19.39 percent of the vote in the first round.
Following the moves of some civil society and Indigenous organisations, Perez said he plans to spoil his vote, calling it an act of resistance against Arauz and Lasso.
Perez disputed the election results, alleging unproven fraud, but an electoral court ruled against his request for the National Electoral Council (CNE) to review 27,000 ballot records.
“We’d like to see more candidates which bring the country together and don’t only look after their personal interests,” said Nora Salazar, an anti-fraud activist who cast her ballot for Lasso in the first round as an anti-Correa protest vote.
Salazar said she plans to spoil her ballot on Sunday because of the fraud allegations that were raised during the first round. “In Ecuador, we’re up against the devil and the deep blue sea,” she said.