Decision Day in Ecuador's Presidential Election

Voters in Ecuador are choosing a new president today. In the lead among the 13 candidates is Rafael Correa, an anti-U.S. ally of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. But tycoon Alvaro Noboa is likely to force a run-off. He has been warning voters that Correa could roll back economic freedoms.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

And now to politics in Ecuador, where voters went to the polls today to choose a new president. Exit polls show the country heading to a run-off between a wealthy businessman and a young economist who draws his inspiration from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. NPR's Julie McCarthy is covering the election in Quito(ph) and joins me now. Julie, who seems to be in the lead?

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, there has been a series of exit polls that were released on national television stations and they indicate that Alvaro Noboa, one of the countries richest men, is leading this election. He has pulled, according to these preliminary reports, 28 percent of the vote, and Rafael Correa, the economist who surged from near oblivion in recent months, is trailing in second place - again, unofficially - with between 25 to 27 percent of the vote.

This is a surprise. Noboa had been climbing in the polls in recent days to second place. And his campaign released a series of spots, Jacki, late in the week, in the final days of the contest, directed against Correa portraying him as a radical who was going to extend the political instability that Ecuador has been plagued with for the past decade.

And it was something that voters commented on to me at the polls today, this fear that Correa was a radical. Now, Correa, his own exit polls show that in fact he's the lead; he said be vigilant and the night is young, and he cautioned about the possibility of fraud.

LYDEN: The polls closed at 5:00 o'clock local time. Votes are still being counted. I guess Correa had thought that exit polls would show he'd take the lead.

MCCARTHY: That's right, and he was sounding very defensive when these exit polls came out. He is under intense pressure tonight. You have this anti-poverty crusader who even vested Hugo Chavez in his incendiary remarks about President Bush, was seen as the clear front-runner.

You know, when Chavez compared President Bush to the devil at the U.N., Correa called it an insult to the devil. I'd asked him about it and he sort of deflected it, saying he wasn't president and such indelicate remarks shouldn't mean much. But Correa is on the defensive here, coming in second place, according to these unofficial results so far.

There will be a run-off. It does appear tonight that were heading toward a run-off. The official results, as you say, will be due in later this evening. But they aren't likely to determine tonight whether Ecuador will consolidate the gains Left his made in Latin America or whether it will take another path. I don't think were going to know that tonight.

LYDEN: What's at stake for the U.S. in this election, Julie?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think this election is a showcase for all kinds of issues that have irrupted in the region that the U.S. has got to address. The election highlighted national sovereignty; for one thing, whether U.S. troops should be allowed to continue to operate on Ecuadorian soil, and whether all foreign oil companies have to renegotiate their contracts to give a bigger stake to the country.

There is a vision also here that holds that free trade is a way out for the country and there are those who oppose free trade as an instrument to give larger countries a bigger say over a smaller country like Ecuador. So there's lots of divisions in which the U.S. figures prominently.

LYDEN: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Quito, Ecuador. Thank you, Julie.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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