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Popularity propels Ecuador's Correa ahead of election

By Mariano Castillo and Andres Lopez, CNN
February 17, 2013 -- Updated 0343 GMT (1143 HKT)
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa hosted Qatar's Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, waving, in Quito Saturday.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa hosted Qatar's Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, waving, in Quito Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ecuadorians will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president
  • President Rafael Correa had a sizable lead according to latest polls
  • Correa's leftist policies make him popular at home

Quito, Ecuador (CNN) -- Ecuadorian law prohibits polling firms from releasing data in the 10 days before Sunday's presidential election, but unless something surprising happens, incumbent Rafael Correa can expect to win re-election.

Earlier this month, four of the country's major polling firms gave Correa a more-than-comfortable margin over his seven challengers.

To avoid a runoff, the winner of the election must obtain at least 40% of the vote and more than 10 points' difference from the runner-up. Correa is poised to meet both those criteria.

From abroad, the leftist president is often characterized as a disciple of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Indeed, the U.S.-trained economist has created his own "Citizens' Revolution," a socialist-oriented economic program with some similarities to what Chavez has done in Venezuela

Correa has been criticized by press freedom groups for his government's aggressive legal battles against media outlets unfriendly to him. At the same time, Ecuador is housing Julian Assange in its embassy in London, and Correa has offered him asylum.

Yet, domestically, Correa's social and economic programs have made him a popular president. He enjoys an approval rating of nearly 85%, according to a December survey by pollster Perfiles de Opiniones.

We have given our strongest effort to share our proposal full of hope
Guillermo Lasso Mendoza, challenger to President Correa

Ecuadorians will elect the president and vice president, 137 legislators in the National Assembly and five members of the Andean Parliament.

Correa's closest challenger is Guillermo Lasso Mendoza, who ran on a platform promising lower taxes and the privatization of state media companies.

Lasso complained that the short electoral campaign period allowed in Ecuador -- 42 days -- gives an unfair advantage to the incumbent.

"This has been an uneven campaign, but we have given our strongest effort to share our proposal full of hope," Lasso said at his campaign closing.

In his last campaign event, Correa warned of a return to what he said were corrupt leaders who looked after themselves at the expense of the public.

Ecuador, the smallest of the Andean countries, is known for its oil production and tourism. Since Correa became president, he has aligned himself with other countries in the region who reject the influence of the United States.

Correa assumed the presidency in 2007 and under a new constitution ran again and won the presidency in 2009. If re-elected, Correa would serve until 2017.

The possibility of 10 years under Correa's leadership is a contrast with the political landscape in Ecuador before he became president. The country had seven presidents in the 10-year span 1996 and 2006.

Correa's administration has stabilized Ecuador, but more must be done, political analyst Hernan Reyes said.

"We're living in a moment of transition," Reyes said, adding that six years of Correa's presidency have not been enough time to completely shift away from the neoliberal economic model of his predecessors.

"I think Correa has succeeded in making the economy dynamic through state investment in public works (and) social projects. This has created an increase in employment rates. Unemployment and underemployment has fallen."

According to the World Bank, the percentage of the population living in poverty dipped from 36.1% in 2007 to 28.6% in 2011. School enrollment is higher than the average in Latin America and the gross domestic product of the oil-based economy has risen $20 billion since Correa took office.

Other experts are wary of what they say are Correa's authoritarian tendencies.

"Unfortunately, this government, despite its social and economic successes, institutions have been weakened and there is a control over everything by the executive," political analyst Ana Maria Correa said.

Journalist Andres Lopez reported from Quito and CNN's Mariano Castillo from Atlanta.

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