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Leftist is well ahead in Ecuador's runoff

Win could add to erosion of US influence in region

QUITO, Ecuador -- In a blow to a weakened US influence in Latin America, a leftist economist, Rafael Correa, appeared to be sweeping to a lopsided victory in yesterday's presidential runoff.

A 43-year-old native of Guayaquil, Correa received about 56 percent of the vote, overpowering banana magnate and perennial candidate Alvaro Noboa, who garnered 44 percent, according to three exit polls. Official results will not be known until today or tomorrow, and Noboa has not conceded the election.

The president-elect, a lifelong academic with an economics doctorate from the University of Illinois, won by promising to pursue a socialist agenda similar to that of his political mentor, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. Like Chávez, he has promised to make sweeping changes to the nation's corrupt and inefficient political system by convening a new constitutional assembly and concentrating power in the presidency.

"After years living in the darkness, we have a triumph that is a victory for hope -- hope for change, hope for regaining control of the homeland, " Correa said.

Correa, in a speech to supporters at a hotel, said: "We are nothing but the instruments of hope."

Probably less hopeful are holders of Ecuador's external debt, of $11 billion. During his campaign, Correa said he would try to renegotiate the obligations and did not rule out a default, saying the money would be better spent on social programs. Ecuador has defaulted on its foreign debt three times since the early 1980s.

"His comments were reason enough to cause a selloff in Ecuadoran bonds," said Gianfranco Bertozzi, a strategist at the Lehman Brothers investment banking company in New York.

"This was the least market-friendly result," Bertozzi said. "Most investors thought Noboa would win."

Correa is the latest left-leaning candidate to win an election in Latin America in a little more than a year. Leftists lead, or are set to take office, in Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Not all are opposed to US economic policies in the region.

Throughout his campaign, Correa spoke harshly about the United States and President Bush. But since placing second to Noboa in the first electoral round on Oct. 15, he has softened his image, and he recently had a meeting with the US ambassador, Linda Jewell.

Still, yesterday he reiterated a promise that he would not renew the US military's lease on part of the Manta air base, headquarters for US efforts to curb drug trafficking in the region. He also said he will not sign a proposed free-trade agreement with the United States.

Much like Chávez in Venezuela, Correa has proposed bypassing the Congress on issues such as the budget and political changes.

Chávez, who leads in polls ahead of a Dec. 3 election in Venezuela, made similar changes through a constitutional assembly after taking office in 1999. Critics have voiced fear that Correa will use such changes to consolidate power.

Correa's supporters, who came from a cross-section of voters, said they chose him for his youth, idealism, and for his promise to reinvent Ecuador, a politically restive country that has had seven presidents in 10 years.

"He has a social conscience, he's more believable, while having Noboa as president would be going down the same road as always," said an electrical engineer, Jorge Quirola, who was interviewed as he voted in the middle-class suburb of Cumbaya.

Correa's chances of implementing the changes he has promised are complicated by his lack of support in Ecuador's newly elected Congress, which must authorize a constitutional assembly or referendum to make the changes Correa proposes.

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