- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

QUITO, Ecuador — A banana tycoon who waged an old-fashioned populist campaign and a leftist admirer of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will head to a runoff vote after neither scored an outright victory in yesterday’s tight presidential election, partial results showed.

With nearly a third of the ballots counted, Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s wealthiest man, had 25.7 percent of the vote compared with 23.7 percent for Rafael Correa, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said.

A Nov. 26 runoff had been expected as none of the 13 candidates in the field appeared likely to win outright in recent polls. The winner needed 50 percent, or at least 40 percent of the valid vote and a 10-point lead over the rest of the field to avoid a runoff.

Both U.S. and Venezuelan officials — apparently wary of tilting the race with ill-advised comments, as both have done in recent Latin American elections — have been studiously silent about the rise of Mr. Correa, 43, who last month called President Bush “tremendously dimwitted.”

Despite that silence, Mr. Correa yesterday accused the U.S. of meddling in the election.

While providing no specific examples, Mr. Correa told the Venezuelan-based Telesur TV network that Washington knows “that we are not going to be anyone’s employee and that we will make our sovereignty respected.”

He reiterated that he opposed a free-trade pact with the U.S. and would not renew in 2009 an agreement that allows the United States to use an Ecuadoran military base for drug-surveillance flights.

Mr. Correa also has said he will renegotiate contracts with oil companies to secure more profits for his country. Although a relatively small producer, Ecuador’s 535,000 barrels a day account for 43 percent of the national budget.

Tall and charismatic, Mr. Correa has pledged a “citizens revolution” against the discredited political system. That resonated with Ecuadorans, who forced the last three elected presidents from power.

A Correa victory would push Latin America further to the left, with Ecuador joining left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

Standing in Mr. Correa’s way is Alvaro Noboa, 55, Ecuador’s wealthiest man, who proudly points out that he is also its biggest investor, the owner of 110 companies. He says he will use his business skills to bring Ecuador’s poor into the middle class.

Making his third run for the presidency, Mr. Noboa moved up quickly in the polls.

Voters like Mr. Noboa’s promises to provide cheap housing and create 1 million jobs in this small Andean nation of 13.4 million people, 76 percent of whom are poor, according to UNICEF.

Driving up to a polling station in a red Mercedes-Benz yesterday, Mr. Noboa thanked Ecuador’s poor for their support, saying: “I will keep my promises to you on housing, jobs and health.”

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