Ecuador goes to the polls for a new president under strict pandemic restrictions

Ecuador elects a new president on Sunday in the face of unprecedented health measures due to the coronavirus pandemic and the influence of a populist former head of state who was blocked from a seat on the ballot due to a corruption conviction.

Sixteen candidates are vying to succeed President Lenín Moreno, a protege-turned-rival of former President Rafael Correa, who ruled Ecuador for a decade and remains a major force despite a criminal conviction that prevented him from running for vice-president this year.

There are so many challengers that a round-up election on April 11 is almost certain, but the clear leaders have been a Correa-backed candidate, Andrés Arauz, and a conservative former banker who came second twice before, Guillermo Lasso.

Voters have been ordered to wear a mask, bring their own bottle of hand sanitizer and pen, keep a distance of 1.5 meters from others and avoid all personal contact at the polling station. The only time voters are allowed to lower the mask is during the identification process.

The winner must work to pull the oil-producing nation out of a deepening economic crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The South American country of 17 million people had registered more than 253,000 cases and nearly 15,000 deaths of COVID-19 as of Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Get rich to pay more taxes

Arauz, a 35-year-old former culture minister who attended the University of Michigan, meets Lasso, who at age 65 is making a third run for the presidency after a long career in business, banking and government. Original rights and environmental activist Yaku Pérez has taken third place.

Arauz has proposed that the rich pay more taxes and strengthen consumer protection mechanisms, public banking and local credit and savings organizations. He has said he will not abide by the agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

Lasso, advocates free market policy and Ecuador’s approximation of international organizations. He has promised to create more jobs and attract international banks. He also wants to increase the oil, mining and energy sector through private units to replace government funding.

Right over the election is the future of Correa, a left that is still only 57. He ruled from 2007 to 2017 as an ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, both now deceased.

He is still popular with millions of Ecuadorians after overseeing a period of economic growth driven by an oil boom and loans from China that enabled him to expand social programs, build roads, schools and other projects. But he increasingly cracked down on opponents, the press and companies during his final stage in office and quarreled with domestic groups over development projects. His appeal has also been damaged by a corruption conviction that he says was a trump card of political revenge.

Correa was sentenced in absentia in April to eight years in prison for his role in a system to extract millions of dollars from businessmen in exchange for infrastructure projects – money allegedly used for political purposes.

That conviction prevented him from running as Arauz’s vice presidential candidate.

An earlier attempt by Ecuadorian prosecutors to extradite him from Belgium in an unrelated kidnapping case was rejected by Interpol on human rights grounds.

Moreno won his office four years ago with Correa’s support, but broke with him and pursued business-friendly policies as the country’s economy suffered from a slippage in oil and commodity prices. While he was eligible to seek re-election, he chose not to run.