Ecuador's Correa breezes to 2nd re-election
President Rafael Correa, a fiery-tongued leftist who has endeared himself to the lower classes by expanding Ecuador's welfare state but drawn wide rebuke for intolerance of dissent, breezed to a second re-election on Sunday.
The U.S.-educated economist won 56.9 percent of the vote against 23.8 percent for his closest challenger, former banker Guillermo Lasso, with 57 percent of the vote counted.
Correa, 48, called the outcome a victory for his "citizens' revolution," and promised to further reduce poverty, which the United Nations says has dropped nearly five percentage points to 32.4 percent since he first took office in 2007.
"We are only here to serve you. Nothing for us. Everything for you," Correa told jubilant supporters from the balcony of the Carondelet presidential palace, celebrating long before official results were released.
Lasso, the ex-head of the Banco de Guayaquil, had run a business-friendly but relatively tame campaign, and conceded as first official results were released. Former President Lucio Gutierrez won 6 percent. The rest of the vote was divided among five other candidates.
Correa has brought surprising stability to an oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million with a history of unruliness that cycled through seven presidents in the decade before him. With the help of oil prices that have hovered around $100 a barrel, he has raised living standards among the poor and widened the welfare state with region-leading social spending.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said Correa has shown himself to be the "undisputed rhetorical leader of Latin America's left" and will now see his standing enhanced there.
But Shifter said Correa's moves to concentrate power have damaged Ecuador's "already precarious institutions" while his ramping up of social spending "is simply applying the standard recipe for many populist governments in the region." While it succeeds in building political support in the short term, it's not clear whether it is sustainable, he said.
Correa's result Sunday topped the 51.7 percent he won in his first re-election in April 2009 in a ballot set up by a voter-approved constitutional rewrite. Correa is now legally barred from another 4-year term.
Correa dedicated his victory to Venezuela's cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez, his close ally among Latin America's alliance of leftist leaders.
While a practitioner of one-man rule in the Chavez mold, he is more respectful of private property.
Ecuador relies on petroleum for more than half of its export earnings, and he has used this oil wealth to make public education and health care more accessible, and lay thousands of kilometers (miles) of new highways.
Foreign investment has suffered, however, and Lasso ran on guaranteeing multinational businesses more favorable terms, such as abolishing a 5 percent tax on capital removed from Ecuador.
Correa said he's happy to have more foreign investment but "it's better not to have it than to mortgage the country in the name of that pipe dream called foreign investment."
He did not explain, meanwhile, how he planned to pay for efforts to "quicken and deepen" poverty reduction. Skeptical economists say the state can't afford it without major new revenue sources.
Such talk doesn't dim the enthusiasm for Correa of the likes of Jomaira Espinosa.
"Before (Correa), my family didn't have enough to eat" and her father couldn't find work, the 18-year-old said. Now her father has a job as a public servant and she expects to be able to study for free at a university thanks to Correa's programs.
Correa has been harshly condemned for using criminal libel law against opposition news media and for such strong-arm tactics as seizing Ecuador's airwaves virtually at will to spread his political gospel and attack opponents.
German Calapucha, a 29-year-old accountant, said he voted against Correa because he's tired of the president's imperiousness.
"He thinks that because he wins elections he has the right to mistreat people," Calapucha said.
He has eroded the influence of opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church and the news media, stacked courts with friendly judges and prosecuted indigenous leaders for organizing protests against Correa's attempt to open up Ecuador to large-scale mining without their consent.
"He is far too insolent," said Laura Realpe, a 59-year-old housewife.
That matters little to voters such as Fabian Garzon, a 48-year-old messenger and cleaner.
Thanks to Correa, he has been able to buy his own apartment with a $24,000 government-issued mortgage.
His monthly salary, meanwhile, has more than doubled over the past four years, from $200 to $450, and payments for his social security, vacation and other government-mandated contributions are being made regularly.
"I worked 25 years without having my own house and at this age, thank God, I'm able to own my own home," Garzon said.
In all, 1.9 million people receive $50 a month in aid from the state. Critics complain that the popular handouts to single mothers, needy families and the elderly poor, along with other subsidies, have bloated the government.
The number of people working for it has burgeoned from 16,000 to 90,000 during Correa's current term, Ecuador's nongovernmental Observatory of Fiscal Policy reported in December.
Correa also has been unable to stop a growing sensation of vulnerability in a country where robberies and burglaries grew 30 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year.
The graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gained an early reputation as a maverick, defying international financiers by defaulting on $3.9 billion in foreign debt obligations and rewriting contracts with oil multinationals to secure a higher share of oil revenues for Ecuador.
He has also kept the United States at arm's length while upsetting Britain and Sweden in August by granting asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the online spiller of leaked U.S. government secrets who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual assault.
Correa has, meanwhile, cozied up to U.S. rivals Iran and China. The latter is the biggest buyer of Ecuador's oil and holds $3.4 billion in Ecuadorean debt, according to Finance Minister Patricio Rivera.
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru