Ecuador headed yesterday for a runoff presidential vote after two main rivals -- billionaire Alvaro Noboa and leftist economist Rafael Correa -- appeared to have failed to gain enough votes for an outright victory.
Local election law requires a candidate to secure at least 40 percent of the ballot and have at least a 10-point lead over the runner-up to win the contest in the first round.
But with more than 61 percent of the vote counted, Noboa, a 56-year-old banana magnate, led Correa, a 43-year-old ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, by 26.8 percent versus 22.4 percent of the ballot, according to partial official returns.
Moderate socialist Leon Roldos ran a distant third, with almost 16 percent of the vote.
If the current trend holds, the fate of the Ecuadorian presidency will be decided in a Noboa-Correa face-off on Nov. 26.
Correa, who had been leading in opinion polls prior to Sunday's vote, immediately accused his rival and authorities of fraud.
"There have been irregularities," he contended. "We have not been able to inspect the software used for vote counting."
Noboa attributed his lead to his opponent's friendship with Cuba and Chavez, who is a staunch ally of Havana.
"The people have just given the biggest lashing you can give to a friend of terrorism, a friend of Chavez, a friend of Cuba," Noboa said.
Rafael Bielsa, the head of an Organization of American States observation team, said earlier voting went normally throughout Ecuador and saw "no irregularity" in the polling.
Bielsa, a former foreign minister from Argentina, was slammed as biased by Correa, but on Saturday he said charges of fraud were unproven.
After voting in Quito, Correa warned that he would not tolerate irregularities.
"We will not let them steal the elections," he said.
Ecuadorian President Alfredo Palacio said on Sunday that the election results "will be respected."
Noboa, an openly pro-US candidate, campaigned as a Bible-thumping populist and a rabid anti-communist.
During campaign rallies, Noboa sounded more like a revivalist preacher than a presidential candidate, asking voters to pray to Christ Jesus for the handicapped and handing out checks and wheelchairs.
At one rally Noboa said "God has told me to be president."
Noboa, who has blasted Correa as a "communist devil," has promised 300,000 new homes to the poor and vowed "to turn 6 million unemployed Ecuadorians into middle-class citizens."
Correa promised to seek Ecuador's membership in Mercosur, the South American free-trade area, and would not sign any trade deals with Washington.
A former economy minister, Correa describes himself as a "Christian, humanist and leftist."