Ecuador Re-elects President, Preliminary Results Show

Posted in Latin America | 28-Apr-09 | Author: Simon Romero| Source: New York Times

Supporters of President Rafael Correa gathered Sunday in downtown Quito as preliminary election results came in. Mr. Correa seemed to have won re-election with 51 percent of the vote.

QUITO, Ecuador - President Rafael Correa appeared headed for victory in elections on Sunday as the old political establishment was unable to muster a coherent alternative to his combination of asserting nationalistic control of the economy with broadly popular social welfare programs for the poor.

According to preliminary results, Mr. Correa won 51 percent of the vote, with his closest challenger, Lucio Gutiérrez, a former army colonel ousted as president in 2005, getting 29 percent. The victory would further cement the power of Mr. Correa, an American-educated economist first elected in 2006 when voters repudiated an elite that had overseen a chronically unstable political system.

"We've taken a historic step in consolidating our social revolution," an ebullient Mr. Correa said Sunday afternoon after exit polls signaled his victory.

Nelson Basantes, 47, who voted at the Juan Pío Montúfar School in a working-class district here, said, "Correa is the only leader in this country capable of putting our house in order." Mr. Basantes, a paper recycler, said he admired Mr. Correa's efforts to alleviate economic misery by providing poor families with a $30 payment each month.

Low oil prices are already straining Mr. Correa's hopes of sustaining such social spending. Since Ecuador defaulted on its foreign debt in December, hard currency reserves have fallen by about a third to $3 billion. Rising unemployment in Spain and the United States, countries with large numbers of Ecuadorean immigrants, is also pushing remittances lower.

Mr. Correa, 46, has responded to the sharp economic slowdown by seeking more than $1 billion in loans from China and imposing restrictions on hundreds of imported products in an attempt to prevent United States dollars, used here as the official currency, from flowing out of the country.

The 7.4 percent inflation rate, while lower than in many neighboring countries, also weighed on some voters. Mr. Gutiérrez, the former president, ran advertisements raising alarm about the rising cost of basic foods.

But many voters said they still had faith in Mr. Correa to address such fears.

"Correa is better than the thieves that came before him," said Mariana Sánchez, 52, a street vendor.

Mr. Correa, who won approval of a new Constitution last September that eroded checks on the presidency, has emerged as Ecuador's most powerful president since military rule ended here in 1979. The country's 10th leader since 1996, he will start a new four-year term with a chance of re-election, if the preliminary returns from Sunday hold up.

Indeed, even Ecuador's once unruly legislature, which ousted presidents with ease, has increasingly come under his sway.

Citing the greater centralization of power at a time of political stability, Michael Shifter, vice president of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said "it is less clear what kind of democracy is being constructed."

"For now such a trade-off seems acceptable for most Ecuadoreans," he said, "but when economic conditions worsen, there may be greater discontent with virtually one-man rule."