In Ecuador, Chavez ally likely to win re-election as president

QUITO, Ecuador — President Rafael Correa is poised to win re-election on Sunday, quite a feat in a politically turbulent country that's run through eight presidents in the past 13 years.

Correa, however, has loftier ambitions than simply holding on to power.

He's set on remaking his poor Andean nation, which is both the world's biggest banana exporter and the smallest member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil cartel. Nearly 40 percent of Ecuador's population lives in poverty.

"This citizen's revolution is moving forward, and nobody will stop it!" Correa shouted at a recent campaign stop in Guayaquil, his hometown.

A socialist who's close to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Correa is redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, extending state control over the economy and encouraging more investment by Ecuadorean companies at the expense of foreign investment.

However, an economy sliding into recession following the steep drop in oil prices will test his ability to achieve those goals.

Correa has acted boldly in his two years as president.

A 46-year-old who has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois, he's defaulted on a portion of Ecuador's debt, saying it was contracted illegally years ago.

Correa has angered U.S. policymakers by refusing to renew a U.S. anti-drug air base in Ecuador and by expelling two U.S. diplomats who he said were meddling in the country's politics.

Originally elected in late 2006 with no supporters in Congress, Correa won a public vote to rewrite the Constitution more to his liking. His supporters are likely to win a majority of seats in Congress. This would mark the first time since the return of democracy in 1979 that a president enjoyed a congressional majority.

Correa enjoys unprecedented popularity. He's spent liberally on behalf of the poor, including two increases in the minimum wage. His government has built or refurbished hundreds of schools and local health care clinics.

Correa's popularity has kept his two main opponents in Sunday's election, former president Lucio Gutierrez and perennial candidate Alvaro Noboa, from gaining much traction. Few analysts expect them to hold Correa below 50 percent to force a runoff election with the second place finisher.

Correa's popularity also has protected him against revelations that a then-deputy minister of internal security met several times with a top official of the FARC, Colombia's biggest Marxist rebel group, and then was arrested for ties to drug traffickers.

Turnout is expected to be high: around 70 percent, since in theory, voting is mandatory. The first exit polls will be broadcast just after polls close in the evening.

The election campaign has been carried out in a typically festive atmosphere.

Bright lime-green, pink, or orange flags denoting political parties hang from hundreds of balconies and windows in Quito, the 1.5-million-resident capital, which snakes for 30 miles through an Andean valley near snow-capped volcanoes. Twelve-foot campaign posters adorn the sides and backs of buses.

But many citizens are tired of the constant campaigns under Correa. Sunday's election will mark the sixth time they have gone to the polls since October 2006.

"It would be good if we wouldn't have to vote for another four years," said Mauricio Landazuri, 27, a Correa supporter.

Still, as he walked along the vast La Carolina park in northern Quito, Landazuri, the owner of a small company that makes cleaning products, said he approves of Correa.

"He's had new highways built that were ignored by other presidents," Landazuri said. "You can't say 'wow' yet because things need time to change. However, now is the time to accelerate reforms."

Correa's confrontational style alarms many, though.

"We could be on a fast track to authoritarianism," said political scientist Julio Echeverria.

Correa peppers his speeches with attacks on the media, the wealthy and the older political parties he blames for Ecuador's woes.

Despite his attacks on capitalism and the U.S., Correa hasn't dared change the currency from the U.S. dollar. Introducing an untried new currency would be politically dangerous, analysts said.

"He loves power more than he hates the dollar," said economist Vicente Albornoz at the Cordes policy institute in Quito.

(Bridges reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Kueffner, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Quito, Ecuador.)


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