Sun, Nov 26, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Populists face off in Ecuador election

SMALL WORLD The campaign has cast a spotlight on how Chavez is an election factor beyond his borders, and how the US casts a long shadow over Latin America


One is a banana billionaire who hobnobs with the Kennedys and Rockefellers. The other calls himself a friend of Venezuela's anti-US president Hugo Chavez. Today they are scheduled to square off for the presidency of Ecuador, a country whose last three elected leaders were driven from office by street protests.

Voters in this runoff election must choose between two populists from the right and left: Alvaro Noboa, whose promises include building homes at a pace of 34 an hour to solve the housing shortage, and leftist economist Rafael Correa, who has rattled Wall Street by threatening to reduce payments on the country's US$16.1 billion foreign debt.

A victory for Correa would tip Ecuador into the ranks of Latin American countries that have turned left in recent years. But with polls predicting a dead heat, and Correa claiming fraud even before the votes are cast, the nation of 13.4 million, three-fourths of them poor, could be in for a lengthy postelection stalemate.

While Noboa is running for the third time, Correa -- tall, charismatic and youthful at 43 -- has surged into Ecuadorean politics as a fresh-faced outsider pledging radical reforms to clean up a political establishment widely seen as corrupt and unresponsive to the country's needs.

Noboa, 56, Ecuador's wealthiest man, has crisscrossed this small Andean country handing out computers, wheelchairs and cash.

He has pledged to build 300,000 low-cost homes a year, financing them through government bonds, and to create jobs and growth by persuading his rich foreign friends to invest in Ecuador.

The campaign has cast a spotlight on how, once again, Chavez is an election factor beyond his borders.

As in neighboring Peru last spring, a leftist candidate started out identifying with Chavez, only to backpedal when he found the comparison was costing him support.

In the first round, Correa not only endorsed Chavez's depiction of President Bush as the devil, but took the comparison further, saying Bush was too "dimwitted" to be Satan.

But this month he said his remarks had been "imprudent," and he also criticized Chavez for attacking Noboa as a US lackey.

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