With 85 percent of votes counted, Gonzalez – a protege of former President Rafael Correa who has promised to revive his social programmes – won 33 percent support, while Noboa, son of prominent banana businessman and former presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa, was a surprise second-place with 24 percent of the vote.
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If no presidential candidate wins an absolute majority or at least 40 percent of the vote and a 10-percentage-point lead over the runner-up, a run-off is required.
“Thank you, dear Ecuador, for this civic victory! We continue in this struggle, in which you have already given us a first victory and there will be a great and definitive second victory,” Gonzalez said.
Sharp increases in crime, which the current government blames on drug gangs, and the struggling economy, whose woes have caused a rise in unemployment and migration, were the top concerns among voters as they headed to the polls on Sunday.
President of the National Electoral Council Diana Atamaint said results showed no candidate had hit the threshold to win outright, after a tense day of voting under heavy security.
“We are heading to a second round election on October 15,” she told journalists on Monday.
Voting appeared to have been peaceful despite the crisis of insecurity, drug-related violence, and corruption in the country.
Eight candidates were running for the highest office in Sunday’s snap elections, taking place as the country remains shaken by a wave of violence, including the assassination of anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio earlier this month.
The killing is still under investigation. Villavicencio’s replacement, investigative journalist Christian Zurita, came third with 16 percent.
Incumbent President Guillermo Lasso had called the snap election after he dissolved the opposition-dominated National Assembly in May to avoid an impeachment trial just two years after his election. Voters will also elect members of the 137-seat assembly.
Defender of Correa’s socialist legacy
Al Jazeera’s Latin America Editor Lucia Newman said the result of the Sunday, August 20 election likely surprised the 45-year-old Gonzalez, who is from the left-wing Citizen Revolution Movement party.
“Gonzalez did come in first as predicted, but by a far smaller margin than she would have hoped for as nine points behind her was Noboa – a 35-year-old businessman and the son of one of the richest men in the country, a banana magnate,” said Newman, reporting from the capital Quito.
“Noboa has been a congressman in the past but is still seen as an anti-politician,” she said, adding that most of the candidates who did not make it past the first round of voting are expected to back Noboa in the run-off.
“It puts the candidate in the left-wing party in a very difficult position for the run-off,” Newman said.
Despite the close contest, Gonzalez hailed her “triumph” in the first round.
The candidate, who sees herself as a defender of Correa’s socialist legacy, had long been leading opinion polls. She has said that former President Correa will be a close adviser if she is elected.
Correa was sentenced to eight years in jail after an investigation by Villavicencio into corruption. He fled to Belgium, where he has been living in exile for six years.
‘Noboa appeals to the youth’
Meanwhile, Noboa said the “youth” had chosen him to beat Correa’s party.
His father, Alvaro Noboa, ran unsuccessfully for the presidency five times.
Political analyst Javier Farje said Noboa seems to have appealed to the young “disenfranchised” voters in Ecuador, who are unhappy with the country’s current political system.
“Noboa is a young entrepreneur but he is also prepared to talk to Jan Topic, the hard-line candidate who wants to implement harsh policies in relation to crime, to talk about security,” he told Al Jazeera.
Farje noted that Noboa was able to appeal to young voters and people who are concerned about the way crime has risen in Ecuador.
The small South American country has in recent years become a playground for drug traffickers seeking to export cocaine from its shores, stirring up a brutal war between local gangs.
Ecuadorians also voted on Sunday to halt oil exploration in Yasuni National Park, often described as one of the world’s greatest havens of biodiversity.
With over 90 percent of the ballots counted by early Monday, around 60 percent of Ecuadorians rejected oil exploration in the Yasuni region’s Block 43, the Associated Press news agency reported.
The area – home to hundreds of species of birds, amphibians and reptiles – was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a biosphere reserve in 1989. But Lasso’s government pushed to drill for oil in it.
Yasuni National Park is also inhabited by Indigenous communities that live in self-isolation.
“We now have the power to let go of the oil companies and give victory to land, water and life,” Nemonte Nenquimo, an Indigenous leader of the Waorani people, told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
Nenquimo added that the vote would be “a day we will remember as the day the planet started to win, and corrupt politicians and oil companies lost”.