by Alexander Martinez, Agence France-Presse | 02/18/2013 7:31 AM
QUITO - President Rafael Correa declared victory in the first-round of Ecuador's presidential vote Sunday as he celebrated with thousands of supporters in the capital of the South American country.
"We are here to serve you," Correa told a crowd from the balcony of the presidential palace in Quito. "Nothing for us, everything for you: the people who deserve the right to be free."
His announcement came shortly after polls closed in an election he had been widely expected to win. Exit polls gave him about 60 percent of the vote -- and a roughly 40-point lead over his nearest rival, banker Guillermo Lasso.
To avoid a second round, Correa needed to win either 50 percent of the valid vote or 40 percent with a 10 point lead over the nearest contender.
When casting his ballot in a Quito school earlier in the day, the 49-year-old urged Ecuador's 11.7 million registered voters to turn out in large numbers to "elect our future."
"In our hands is our destiny," said Correa, a US educated economist who has been in power since 2007 and is one of a wave of leftist leaders shaping recent Latin American politics.
Correa's presumed win comes as no surprise since pre-election polls showed him with a huge lead over Lasso.
At stake besides the presidency are the country's vice presidency and 137 seats in the unicameral Congress.
As citizens headed to the polls, international observers from UNASUR, a grouping of Latin American countries, reported the process was proceeding normally, although delays were noted at some voting stations.
"I voted for the president because the others only make passing promises and then do not fulfill them," said Mariano Chicaiza, a 68-year-old farmer in Cangahua, an isolated indigenous community in the mountains northeast of Quito.
Lasso, who had around 20 percent backing in the exit polls, voted in Guayaquil, he said, "with great faith that the Ecuadoran people will know to make a better decision."
About 30 percent of Ecuador's 15 million people live below the poverty line, and Correa has won support with popular social programs.
A self-declared foe of neo-liberal economics, he has also taken on big business and media groups, imposing new contracts on oil companies and renegotiating the country's debt while touting his poverty reduction efforts.
After clashing with privately-owned media, which he accuses of backing a police revolt in 2010, Correa barred his ministers from talking with opposition newspapers.
And while he presents himself as a "defender of freedom of expression," Correa wants to enact a new media regulation law.
Last year, Correa irritated Britain and the United States by granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange -- who is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sexual assault allegations -- at Ecuador's embassy in London.
Among Correa's advisers is former computer hacker Kevin Mitnick, a 49-year-old American who spent five years in prison in the United States for hacking into US telecommunications systems.
Critics accuse Correa of scaring away foreign capital, pointing to his friendships with the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, although the Ecuadoran president has been more pragmatic than his leftist allies.
Ahead of the vote, Correa's Alianza Pais party held the largest bloc of seats in the Congress, but Correa told supporters on Thursday that he needs an absolute majority to deepen his "socialist revolution."
"He needs a reliable, solid and obedient majority," said Simon Pachano, a political analyst. "He has problems now because he does not have a majority in the assembly and has to put it together with alliances."
Lasso, who was finance minister during an economic crisis in the 1990s, had struggled to woo voters.
The other candidates included former president Lucio Gutierrez, a retired army colonel who was ousted by Congress amid a popular revolt in 2005, and the country's richest man, Alvaro Noboa.
Correa has brought a measure of political stability to Ecuador, which had seven presidents in the turbulent decade that preceded him, including three who were overthrown.
Voting is obligatory for people age 18 to 65, and optional for youths 16 years and older as well as for people over 65.
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