Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Ecuadoreans began voting today to pass judgment on President Rafael Correa’s bid for a new four-year term following a surge in government spending aimed at boosting his support.
The former economics professor, who raised the minimum wage and increased cash handouts to the poor last month, led the seven-candidate field with 62 percent of those surveyed saying they planned to vote for the incumbent, according to a Feb. 5 poll by Quito-based pollster Perfiles de Opinion. The National Electoral Council plans to announce partial voting results after polls close around 5 p.m. local time.
As the head of a nation where about one in three of its 15.4 million citizens live in poverty, Correa has pledged to “radicalize” his “citizens’ revolution” with free education and health care if elected to a new term. Correa needs at least half the valid votes cast or 40 percent of the vote plus a 10 percentage-point lead over the second-place candidate to be elected in the first round.
“What’s at stake is Correa’s model of governing and social spending and redistribution,” Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow said by telephone from Washington. “He’s very popular, and so this is about whether people want continuity or change. From what we can tell from polls right now, it looks like the overwhelming sentiment is toward continuity.”
The Perfiles survey, the last poll published before the elections, shows Guillermo Lasso, the former chief executive officer of Ecuador’s second-biggest publicly traded bank, Banco de Guayaquil SA, trailing Correa in second place with 9.2 percent support. The survey of 8,050 people had a margin of error of 1 percentage point. Six other polls found Correa leading with support ranging from 48 percent to 59 percent.
If no candidate receives the requisite number of votes in the first round of balloting today, a second-round election will be held April 7 between the top two candidates.
President Correa, accompanied by his vice presidential candidate Jorge Glas, called on Ecuadoreans to exercise their vote responsibly today after casting his ballot at a local elementary school in Quito.
“The destiny of the nation is in the hands of Ecuadoreans,” Correa said after voting. “This is a democratic festival, a national festival, please vote with conscience, responsibility and infinite love for the fatherland.”
Correa, an ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, was first elected in 2007 on his pledge to renegotiate the country’s foreign debt and lift the nation’s poor out of poverty.
In 2008, he defaulted on $3.2 billion of bonds and pushed through laws nationalizing the country’s crude reserves two years later. While the moves provided short-term gains, the 49-year-old Correa is now paying the cost with stagnant crude output and declines in private investment needed to boost slumping growth.
Ecuadoreans also will vote for a new congress. Correa’s ruling Alianza Pais political party may increase its control of the legislature to between 80 and 100 of the assembly’s 137 seats, Eurasia Group said in a Feb. 11 research note.
An increase in the price of oil, tax increases and loans from China have helped Correa more than double spending in the past six years, fueling growth.
Now, with oil prices forecast to remain unchanged around $97 per barrel into 2014, the next government will struggle to find money to finance campaign promises, said former Finance Minister Fausto Ortiz, who worked with Correa in 2007-2008.
“Whoever wins, be it Correa or the opposition, they will face an economy without the abundant resources seen over the last six years,” Ortiz said in a phone interview from Quito. The next president “will need to approach the private sector and foreign investors to be able to substitute financing that’s no longer available from oil.”
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