- Associated Press - Sunday, February 17, 2013

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuadoreans cast ballots Sunday with President Rafael Correa, a dynamic, polemical economist, highly favored to win a second re-election. His leftist government has won broad backing from the lower classes as it leads Latin America in social spending as a portion of the economy.

Mr. Correa’s leading opponent, former Banco de Guayaquil Executive President Guillermo Lasso, trailed Mr. Correa in pre-election polls by more than 20 points in the field of eight candidates.

Mr. Correa, 48, has brought uncharacteristic political stability to an oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million people that cycled through seven presidents in the decade before he first took office in 2007.

He won re-election in April 2009 after voters approved a constitutional rewrite that mandated a new ballot, and he would be legally barred from running again following a victory Sunday.

To avoid a runoff, Mr. Correa needed a simple majority or 40 percent of the vote plus a 10-point margin over the No. 2 vote-getter.

Mr. Correa, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, focused his campaign on increasing tax revenue and social services. Mr. Lasso promised to be friendlier to foreign investment, lower taxes on job-creating companies and roll back elements of what Mr. Correa calls his “21st-century socialism,” such as a 5 percent tax on capital removed from Ecuador.

A champion of big government in the mold of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez but less radical, Mr. Correa has endeared himself to the lower classes by making education and health care more accessible, building or improving 4,870 miles of highways and, the government says, creating 95,400 jobs in the past four years.

A grateful Jomaira Espinosa, 18, cast her ballot for him Sunday.

“Before (Mr. Correa), my family didn’t have enough to eat, and now it does. There are lots of positive changes in the economy, and my father was able to find work,” said Miss Espinosa, who added that she expects to be able to study for free at a university thanks to Mr. Correa’s programs.

Mr. Correa’s critics, including leading international human rights groups, consider him an intolerant bully who arbitrarily wields his near-monopoly on state power against anyone who threatens what he sees as his “citizens’ revolution.”

German Calapucha, a 29-year-old accountant, said he voted for one of Mr. Correa’s challengers, though he didn’t say which, because he’s tired of Mr. Correa’s imperiousness.

“He thinks that because he wins elections he has the right to mistreat people,” Mr. Calapucha said. “I want a country where people respect each other.”

Mr. Correa has eroded the influence of opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church and the news media and used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition journalists. Critics decry his stacking of the courts with friendly judges and the government’s prosecution of indigenous leaders for organizing protests against Mr. Correa’s opening up of Ecuador to large-scale mining without their consent.

Oil prices that have been hovering around $100 a barrel have been a blessing for Mr. Correa.

Petroleum accounts for more than half of Ecuador’s export earnings and have allowed it to lead the region in 2011 in public spending as a portion of gross domestic product at 11.1 percent, according to the United Nations.

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