Fri, Nov 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Presidential candidates tied in Ecuador poll

MUDSLINGING Election hopefuls Noboa and Correa have been swapping dramatic accusations about each other in a race that has highlighted relations with Venezuela

AFP , QUITO

A conservative banana tycoon and an anti-US leftist are heading into what could be a close race for Ecuador's presidency on Sunday following a campaign marked by claims of Venezuelan meddling.

Alvaro Noboa, 56, Ecuador's wealthiest man, and Rafael Correa, 43, a former finance minister, are virtually tied in voter polls ahead of Sunday's run-off presidential election.

Correa trailed his rival by four points in last month's first round of voting, but regained ground after easing up on his anti-US rhetoric and taking some distance from his Venezuelan ally, firebrand President Hugo Chavez.

Both candidates campaigned on populist platforms, promising jobs, housing and better health care, but gave little indication how they would finance the new spending. The campaigns were also marked by mudslinging.

Noboa portrayed his rival as a pawn of Venezuela who would turn Ecuador into a communist client in which "Chavez would be king and Correa viceroy."

Chavez, who had already been accused of meddling in several Latin American elections this year, called Noboa "an extreme right-wing fundamentalist" who made his fortune on the back of child workers.

Amid mounting outrage over what was seen as interference in the campaign, Correa publicly urged his Venezuelan friend to stay out of Ecuador's elections.

He also toned down his criticism of US President George W. Bush, admitting he may have been rash when he said that comparing Bush to the Devil amounted to insulting the Devil.

But at the same time, he has made it clear that if he wins Sunday's election, he would not renew the lease for a US military base on Ecuador's Pacific coast, which is used for counter-narcotics operations in South America.

"We could talk to the United States about renewing the agreement, as long as they let us put an Ecuadoran base in Miami," Correa, a former college professor, likes to joke.

Noboa, on the other hand, wants to renew the lease for a decade when it runs out in 2009.

He also wants to step up ties with the US and keep relations with Venezuela and communist Cuba to an absolute minimum.

A folksy, bible-thumping conservative who claims his candidacy is divinely inspired, Noboa has campaigned on a populist platform -- handing out cash, food and wheelchairs to the crippled.

He has promised "to turn 6 million unemployed Ecuadorans into middle-class citizens" and vowed to build 300,000 new homes a year for the poor -- an average of almost 1,000 a day.

Noboa, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1998 and 2002, likes to contrast his free-market views with what he calls his rival's "communist ideology."

His Institutional Renewal Party of National Action won a majority of congressional seats in last month's elections, and has vowed to offer legal guarantees to multinationals.

Since Ecuador returned to democratic rule in 1979 after a decade of military rule, only three elected heads of state have served out their full terms.

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