Divided Ecuador heads to presidential runoff ballot in April

QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador is headed to a runoff presidential election in April with its deep political divisions evident after the first round of voting, which saw a young leftist backed by a convicted-but-popular former president lead the field of 16 candidates while the second slot remained undecided between a conservative former banker and an Indigenous leader.

The top candidate in Sunday’s ballot was Andrés Arauz, who is supported by former President Rafael Correa, a major influence in the troubled Andean nation despite a corruption conviction.

That gave Arauz a spot in the April 11 runoff. But long after polls closed it was not clear if Arauz would face Guillermo Lasso, in his third run for the presidency after a long career in business, banking and government, or Yaku Pérez, an Indigenous rights and environmental activist.

Pérez’s challenge for second place surprised some observers because he had trailed Arauz and Lasso in pre-election polls.

April’s winner will succeed President Lenín Moreno. He also was initially a protege of Correa but he turned on his predecessor, who had governed Ecuador for a decade and whose criminal conviction blocked him from seeking the vice presidency this year.

“What you are seeing here is really fractured politics,” said Marc Becker, a history professor with a focus on Latin America at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.

Becker said Pérez’s unexpected strong showing reflected a rising interest in mining and environmental concerns among Ecuadorians, but added that he felt conditions favor Arauz for the runoff.

“I’m assuming at this point that Arauz is going to be elected, and it is a big unknown how he will end up governing,” Becker said, referring to Correa’s influence. “Four years ago, people thought the same thing would happen to Moreno, and Moreno, of course, broke away to the right and ended up not governing as Correa’s puppet.”

Gustavo Isch, an analyst and professor at the Universidad Andina, took a different view.

He said Sunday’s winner was Correa, not Arauz, because the candidate on the ballot did not propose anything new during his campaign. “Arauz’s offer is, ‘Let’s go back to what we had with Correa,’” Isch said.

He feels Pérez will have the edge over Arauz if he makes it into the runoff election.

Arauz got 31.5% of the votes, while Pérez had 20.04% and Lasso had 19.97%, according to an official quick count from the Electoral Council of Ecuador late Sunday. To win outright, a candidate needed 50% of the votes, or to have at least 40% with a 10-point lead over the closest opponent.

Arauz, a former culture minister who attended the University of Michigan, has proposed making the wealthy pay more taxes and strengthening consumer protection mechanisms, public banking and local credit and savings organizations. Arauz, 36, said he would not comply with agreements with the International Monetary Fund.

Arauz could not cast his vote in the capital, Quito, because he was registered to do so in Mexico, where he lived until shortly before his nomination, and he did not change his electoral address.

Perez, 51, is a lawyer and one of the country’s most visible Indigenous leaders. He became governor of an Ecuadorian province in 2019, but he resigned a year later to seek the presidency. During the campaign, the widower and father of two traveled about 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometers) on a bamboo bicycle.

Pérez’s showing comes more than a year after an indigenous uprising in Ecuador against the increase in fuel prices. The civil unrest lasted 11 days.

Lasso, 65, was making a third run for the presidency after a long career in business, banking and government. He favors free-market policies and Ecuador’s rapprochement with international organizations. He promised to create more jobs and attract international banks. He also wants to boost the oil, mining and energy sectors through the participation of private entities to replace state financing.

In Ecuador, voting is mandatory. Skipping a trip to the polls comes with a $40 fine.

The coronavirus pandemic prompted government officials to require voters to wear masks, bring their own bottle of hand sanitizer and pencil, keep a 5-foot (1.5-meter) distance from others and avoid all personal contact in the polling places. The only time voters were allowed to lower their masks was during the identification process.

Long lines formed at polling places, especially in big cities, where some voters had to wait hours to cast their ballots.

“I don’t care who wins the elections. We are used to thinking that the messiah is coming to solve our lives and no candidate has solved anything for me,” said one voter, Ramiro Loza. “During the quarantine, my income was reduced by 80%, and the politicians did not feed me.”

Correa, a leftist who is still only 57, governed from 2007 to 2017 as an ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, both now deceased. He remains popular among millions of Ecuadorians after overseeing a period of economic growth driven by an oil boom and loans from China that allowed him to expand social programs, build roads, schools and other projects. But he increasingly cracked down on opponents, the press and businesses during his latter stage in office and feuded with Indigenous groups over development projects.

Correa’s appeal also has been tarnished by a corruption conviction he says was a trumped up product of political vengeance. He was sentenced in absentia in April to eight years in prison for his role in a scheme to extract millions of dollars from businessmen in exchange for infrastructure projects — money allegedly used for political purposes.

Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano reported this story Quito and AP writer Regina Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.