GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuadorians put aside fears of leaving their homes amid unprecedented violence and voted for a new president Sunday in a special election that was heavily guarded by police and soldiers in part due to the assassination of a presidential candidate this month.
No candidate received enough support to be declared winner, with early results pointing to a leftist backed by a fugitive ex-president likely facing a runoff with the son of a banana tycoon. Trailing them was the substitute of Fernando Villavicencio, who was killed Aug. 9 while leaving a campaign rally.
Authorities deployed more than 100,000 police and soldiers to protect the vote against more violence. Gen. Fausto Salinas, commander general of the National Police, said one person was arrested for false voting, two for harassment and resisting arrest and more than 20 for unlawfully carrying guns.
With about 88% of the votes counted late Sunday, results from the National Electoral Council had leftist Luisa González in the lead with about 33% of support. Former lawmaker Daniel Noboa was second with about 24%. To win outright, a candidate needed 50% of the vote, or to have at least 40% with a 10-point lead over the closest opponent.
Christian Zurita was in third place with 16%. His name was not on the ballot, but he substituted for Fernando Villavicencio, whose killing this month laid bare people’s fears over unprecedented violence in a country they considered peaceful up until three years ago.
“For me, it is an honor to be in third place in these elections,” Zurita said. “We have a lot to be proud of. This candidacy has been a light for the country because it is based on the moral stature of those of us who have fought for this country and even died (for it).”
The front-runner in opinion polling had been González, a lawyer and former lawmaker whose campaign highlighted her affiliation with the party of Correa. The former president remains influential even though in 2020 he was found guilty of corruption and sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison. He has been living in his wife’s native Belgium since 2017.
Noboa, 35, was the youngest of the eight candidates and had not appeared higher than fifth place in polls going into the election. He is the son of Alvaro Noboa, who built his wealth on a huge banana-growing and exporting business and attempted to win Ecuador’s presidency several times.
Surrounded by supporters, the younger Noboa told reporters Sunday night that he has not achieved his goal because he has not yet won the presidency. “Tomorrow, we will have to start working again campaigning. There’s a runoff.”
The election was called after President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative former banker, dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May to avoid being impeached over allegations that he failed to intervene to end a faulty contract between the state-owned oil transport company and a private tanker company. He decided not to run in the special election.
The winner of the Oct. 15 runoff will govern only for the remainder of Lasso’s unfinished term, meaning less than two years.
The country’s top electoral authority, Diana Atamaint, reported no violent incidents affected voting centers and characterized the election as “peaceful and safe” after polls closed.
Voting in Ecuador is mandatory for most voters, and many of them weighed the risk of getting robbed against a fine and inconveniences they could face for not voting.
“Nobody votes for pleasure. We must go out (to vote),” Isaac Pérez, a 31-year-old warehouse worker, said after casting a ballot at the University of Guayaquil.
Pérez has been robbed twice in public transit buses and doesn’t think any of the candidates will fix the country’s social problems.
“I don’t think anyone is going to change anything. On Monday, one will still have to go work to support one’s family,” he said.
Ecuadorians were already struggling to make sense of the violent crime their once calm South American country has experienced over the last three years, and then Villavicencio was assassinated as he left a campaign rally in Quito, the capital. His killing heightened people’s fears of spending time anywhere other than their homes and becoming victims of robberies, kidnappings, extortions, homicides or any of the other crimes that have become commonplace.
Villavicencio’s slaying was the third and most prominent in a string of killings of political leaders this year. Six Colombian men have been arrested in connection with his killing.
In addition to a universal demand for safety, the new president will need to address an economy that is struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s Central Bank reduced its growth expectation for 2023 from 3.1% to 2.6%, an annual economic performance that analysts forecast will be even lower.
“Those of us who have children hope for a better economy,” said Karina Navarro, 44. “If the economy grows, jobs will be generated, and there will be a domino effect. It will improve the crisis in terms of assaults, robberies, killings.”
Navarro, an accountant, voted in Samborondón, an upper-class area with gated communities separated from Guayaquil by a river. “Honestly, I don’t go out anymore because they even rob in gated communities,” she said.
Voters were also electing a new National Assembly and deciding two ballot measures — one on whether to stop oil extraction in a portion of the Amazon jungle and the other on whether to authorize the exploitation of minerals such as gold, silver and copper in forests of the Andean Choco around Quito.
On Sunday, children joined parents and grandparents who voted at the University of Guayaquil.
Jamndrye Correa, 18, voted for president for the first time. He said he cast his ballot with crime and violence in mind.
“The crime is very advanced. Everyone is afraid of crime,” said Correa, a student who was robbed at gunpoint about two years ago outside his home.
Associated Press journalists Gonzalo Solano and Gabriela Molina contributed to this report from Quito, Ecuador.