Crime wave in Ecuador a top concern as voters choose new president

The son of a banana magnate and the protégé of socialist former president Rafael Correa will face off in Ecuador’s run-off presidential election on Sunday as the South American country grapples with an unprecedented crime wave and an ailing economy.

Polls ahead of the vote have given a slight edge to centre-right candidate Daniel Noboa, who placed second in the first round of voting in August. The son of businessman Álvaro Noboa, one of Ecuador’s richest men who was once a serial candidate for president himself, has campaigned on a market-friendly platform of youth employment and promoting foreign investment.

“Our proposals are very clear and that’s why we have the confidence of the majority of the Ecuadorean people, the majority of young people,” Noboa said on social media ahead of voting.

His opponent, Luisa González, has campaigned on a platform of social spending similar to that of her mentor Correa, whose tenure from 2007-17 coincided with a commodities boom, heavy public spending and a reduction in poverty, while his government took about $18bn of loans from Chinese banks.

Correa lives in exile in Belgium to avoid a corruption conviction in Ecuador relating to his presidency, which he has characterised as politically motivated. Since winning the first round of voting in August with nearly 34 per cent of the vote, González has sought to distance herself from Correa.

“I want to reiterate that the candidate for the presidency is me, Luisa González, and not Rafael Correa,” she said in a debate held ahead of the run-off vote.

The race has been marred by violence, and polls have consistently found security to be voters’ main concern. Anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in August while leaving a rally in Quito ahead of the first round of voting, traumatising the country. Seven suspects arrested in connection with the murder were killed in jail earlier this month.

Fuelled by drug-related violence, the country’s homicide rate has quadrupled between 2018 and last year, when 4,800 people were murdered. In the first six months of this year, 3,500 homicides were reported in the country of 18mn people.

“I pray that I’ll be able to walk this country without fear,” said Melissa Arias, a social media manager in the capital Quito who plans to vote for Noboa. “Hopefully Noboa can help us with that.”

“Security in our country is getting worse every day,” said Catarina Vilca, a resident of Quito, who supports González as she is worried Noboa will be tempted to privatise state assets.

Both candidates have promised to take a tough line on organised crime, bolster the security forces and invite international support in the fight against crime. During the campaign, candidates wore bulletproof vests at public events and travelled in armoured motorcades.

The next president of the oil and shrimp exporting country will also face a widening fiscal deficit, lower energy revenues and higher interest on debt repayments. The economy is forecast to grow 1.5 per cent this year and 0.8 per cent in 2024.

González has promised to use $2.5bn in foreign reserves to boost the economy, while Noboa — a relative unknown in politics and who is 35 years old — has promised to promote foreign investment and jobs for young people with tax benefits to employers.

The snap election was triggered when President Guillermo Lasso dissolved congress in May using a “mutual death” constitutional clause. The self-made banking millionaire was facing impeachment proceedings in the opposition-controlled congress, though did not stand for re-election.

Whoever wins on Sunday will complete the final 15 months of Lasso’s term, leaving little time to advance policy goals.

“Almost nothing is doable in that time,” said Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “And neither candidate has put enough emphasis on security or elaborated a consistent and realistic plan.”

“The campaign has been anodyne without serious proposals, especially since the murder of Fernando Villavicencio,” said Sofía Cordero, a Quito-based political scientist at the Observatory for Political Reforms in Latin America, who said that candidates eschewed public events and interviews. “We know very little about these candidates.”

Additional reporting by Carla Valdiviezo in Quito