Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a dynamic, polemical economist whose leftist government has won broad backing from the lower classes as it leads Latin America in social spending, was expected to sail to a second re-election yesterday.
His leading opponent, former Banco de Guayaquil executive president Guillermo Lasso, trailed Correa in pre-election polls by more than 20 points in the field of eight candidates.
Correa, 48, has brought uncharacteristic political stability to an oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million people that cycled through seven presidents in the decade before he first took office in 2007.
He won re-election in April 2009 after voters approved a constitutional rewrite that mandated a new ballot, and he would be legally barred from running again following a victory yesterday.
To avoid a run-off, Correa needed a simple majority, or 40 percent of the vote plus a 10 point margin over the No. 2 vote-getter.
Correa, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, focused his campaign on increasing tax revenue and social services.
Lasso promised to be friendlier to foreign investment, lower taxes on job-creating companies and roll back actions taken under what Correa calls his “21st century socialism,” such as a 5 percent tax on capital removed from Ecuador.
A champion of big government in the mold of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but less radical, Correa has endeared himself to the lower classes by making education and healthcare more accessible, building or improving 7,820km of highways and, the government says, creating 95,400 jobs in the past four years.
Correa’s critics, including leading international human rights groups, consider him an intolerant bully who arbitrarily wields his near-monopoly on state power against anyone who threatens what he sees as his “citizens’ revolution.”
Correa has eroded the influence of opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church and the news media, and used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition journalists. Critics decry his stacking of the courts with friendly judges and the government’s prosecution of indigenous leaders for organizing protests against Correa’s opening up of Ecuador to large-scale mining without their consent.
Oil prices that have been hovering around US$100 a barrel have been a blessing for Correa. Petroleum accounts for more than half Ecuador’s export earnings and have allowed it to lead the region in 2011 in public spending as a portion of GDP at 11.1 percent, according to the UN.
Voters like Fabian Garzon, a 48-year-old messenger and cleaner, credit Correa with significantly improving their lives. Garzon now has what he’s always dreamed of: his own apartment, which he is buying with a US$24,000 government mortgage issued by an institution created by Correa’s government.
Meanwhile, his monthly salary has more than doubled over the past four years, from US$200 to US$450, and payments for his social security, vacation and other government-mandated contributions are being made regularly.
“I worked 25 years without having my own house and at this age, thank God, I’m able to own my own home,” Garzon said.
In all, 1.9 million people receive US$50 a month from the state.
Critics complain that the popular handouts to single mothers, needy families and the elderly poor, along with other subsidies, have bloated the government.
The number of people working for the government has burgeoned from 16,000 to 90,000 during Correa’s current term, Ecuador’s non-governmental Observatory of Fiscal Policy said in a report in December last year.
Correa also has been unable to stop a growing sensation of vulnerability in a country where robberies and burglaries grew 30 percent last year compared with the previous year.
Correa gained a reputation as a maverick early on, defying international financiers by defaulting on US$3.9 billion in foreign-debt obligations.
He has also kept the US at arm’s length, and upset Britain and Sweden in August last year by granting asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London to WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, the online spiller of leaked US government secrets who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual assault.
Correa has cozied up to US rivals Iran and China. The latter is the biggest buyer of Ecuador’s oil and holds US$3.4 billion in Ecuadorean debt, Ecuadorean Finance Minister Patricio Rivera said.