Ecuadoreans vote in closely watched presidential election

QUITO: Ecuador's presidential vote Sunday is expected to be a close race that could either further tilt Latin America toward the right following a series of conservative election victories or reinforce President Rafael Correa's "21st century socialism."

Polls showed a neck-and-neck vote between Correa's hand-picked successor, Lenin Moreno, and conservative former banker Guillermo Lasso. Correa is urging voters to pick the candidate who will continue his "Citizens' Revolution" while the opposition candidate is promising to deliver a well-needed jolt to the nation's beleaguered economy.

Results of the election in the small Andean nation of nearly 16 million will be closely watched for their broader geopolitical implications.

With Ecuador's economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low and with a majority of citizens stating in surveys that they are eager for change after 10 years of Correa's iron-fisted rule, analysts had been anticipating that Ecuadoreans would back Lasso and join the growing list of Latin American nations shifting to the right.

Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno has inched ahead amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country's 1999 banking crisis.

"We know how to put ourselves in your shoes, understand your dreams and wishes," Moreno said in a final campaign announcement.

A March 21 poll by firm Cedatos, which accurately predicted the first-round result, put Moreno ahead with 52 percent of the vote for the first time since its runoff surveys began. Yet as many as 16 percent of Ecuadorians report they are still undecided and the leads in the polls are within the margins for error.

Authorities are deploying thousands of officers to beef up security at vote-processing centers around the country after a contentious first-round election on Feb. 19, in which Moreno fell just short of the required percentage of votes to avoid a runoff election against Lasso.

The vote count dragged on for several days before the official results were announced, provoking accusations of fraud from both sides and angry protests that have incited an unusual degree of volatility in the election results.

Lasso has put forward a pro-business agenda aimed at attracting foreign investment, reducing taxes and generating more jobs and in recent days drew comparisons between continuing a Correa-style government and going down the same path as socialist Venezuela.

"Change is preventing Ecuador from experiencing what's happening in our neighboring country Venezuela," he wrote on Twitter.

Lasso has benefited from ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador, but analysts say he has not connected with lower-income voters.

The election results are also being watched as an omen into whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be able to remain at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Lasso has said he'll evict the Australian activist within 30 days of taking office while Moreno says he'll allow him to stay.