Ecuador’s ruling party candidate appeared to be heading for victory in a presidential runoff that would cement the country’s reputation as a bastion of the Latin American left and provide breathing space for the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
However, the narrow 51% to 49% lead for Lenin Moreno was contested by the opposition candidate, Guillermo Lasso, prompting fears for heightened political tension in the days ahead.
With 97% of votes counted, Moreno, a former vice-president under the outgoing president Rafael Correa, was on course to beat Lasso, a 61-year-old former banker.
The head of Ecuador’s electoral council, Juan Pablo Pozo, called on the opposition candidate to recognise the results. “Ecuador deserves the ethical responsibility from its political actors to recognise the democratic decision made by the people at the ballot box,” Pozo said.
However, Lasso, who had earlier claimed victory based on three exit polls that showed him leading by as much as six points, pointed to irregularities and demanded a recount.
“This is very sickening. We’re not going to allow it,” he said, calling on supporters to protest against the results peacefully but firmly. “They’ve crossed a line.”
Several thousand of his supporters picketed the electoral council headquarters on Sunday night chanting: “We don’t want fraud, we want democracy.”
Meanwhile, Moreno appeared on a stage flanked by Correa and Jorge Glas, the vice-president, as thousands of supporters waved flags in the lime-green colours of the Alianza País coalition and cumbia music blasted into the night.
Moreno called for dialogue with the opposition, saying: “We know how to hear the criticisms. Let’s work together in peace and harmony.”
Dancing in the crowd, Marisol Jaramillo, 34, an agricultural worker said: “Now the revolution will continue, life has changed for us over the last 10 years and we want the progress to carry on.”
For the country’s 15 million population, at stake was whether to continue the redistributive policies of the ruling party, which won three elections under Correa, including reduced poverty and improved access to education and healthcare. Correa’s administration had also been criticised for media censorship, corruption and abandoning many environmental promises.
The alternative offered by Lasso was a pro-business, pro-austerity programme that promised tax cuts and more jobs, though Lasso was plagued with accusations of tax avoidance through dozens of offshore accounts.
He also promised to ask Assange to leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London within a month of securing a mandate because he said the asylum was putting a burden on the country’s taxpayers. Assange is reportedly sufficiently concerned to have instructed lawyers in Quito in case Lasso wins.
The election will also have regional ramifications. Should a Moreno victory be confirmed, it would cement Ecuador’s reputation as a bastion of the left in Latin America. Should he lose, it will be taken as another sign of the region’s retreating “pink wave”, following defeats for the left in an Argentinian election and a Bolivian referendum, plus the impeachment and ousting of the Workers’ party president, Dilma Rousseff, in Brazil.
With the stakes high in Ecuador, there were accusations of vote-rigging and other dubious practices during the first round, which was delayed because the result was close, though independent observers from the Union of South American Nations said there was no evidence of fraud and praised the election process as transparent.
The foreign minister, Guillaume Long, urged all involved not to discredit the process for political reasons. “We have made great strides in social progress in the past decade and we will now continue to do so for the next four years,” he said.
“It’s important that all sides respect these results and show their commitment to democracy, without throwing around false allegations that their defeat is due to irregularities, or engaging in any actions that seek to undermine the democratic will of the Ecuadorian people”.
Earlier in the day, Moreno voted at a polling station in Quito, while his supporters gathered outside chanting: “You can see it, you can feel it, Lenin president.”
Moreno called for the election to be a peaceful process. “Let the people make their decision,” he said.
As police formed a cordon to hold back the throng, voters – many of them Lasso supporters – said they could not enter the polling station to vote, as Moreno sympathisers jeered.
“I voted for Lasso, I voted for a change,” Maria Jose Maldonado, 33, a business administrator, said. “We don’t want a dictatorship, we don’t want our freedom taken away, we don’t want to be like Venezuela,” she said, alluding to the move by the supreme court in Caracas to take over legislative powers in the opposition-controlled Venezuelan congress last week.
Casting his vote in Ecuador’s port city of Guayaquil, Lasso said: “This is a crucial day, this isn’t any election, here there’s a path; there’s a path to Venezuela or a path to democracy and freedom.”
At the polling station in Quito where Moreno voted, Nora Molina, 57, said she had voted for him because “we have made a lot of progress in the last 10 years and we want it to continue”.
Voting with her young children, Patricia Romero, 37, said she backed Moreno: “I would like him to continue with the revolution which has helped us and he is genuinely concerned for the people.”
Carlos Muso, a 54-year-old taxi driver, said he had opted for Lasso because he would favour small businesses. “We need a change. Lasso is the best opportunity we have. We need a boost for the private sector, lots of companies have had to close and that’s no good,” he said.
While Moreno’s supporters danced in Quito, Lasso’s supporters had their own festivities in Guayaquil, while hundreds more massed outside the country’s electoral board headquarters awaiting the final results.
Correa, meanwhile, called for calm and awaited the official results as “two exit polls have given absolutely contradictory results”.
It is the tightest race in living memory, said Santiago Basabe, a political scientist with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. “I don’t think we’ve ever had such a close election, so hard-fought with such a high level of uncertainty among the population.”
The voter indecision is because the candidates lack the charisma and conviction of Correa, said Hernan Reyes, a political scientist at Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito. “Neither candidate generated any kind of passion of the kind the Ecuadorean voter is used to.”