, UITO, Apr 27 – Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa celebrated victory on Monday after exit polls showed voters had handed him a second term in office.
"My first words are of profound gratitude to the Ecuadoran people inside and outside the country … because we’ve won overwhelmingly," Correa told a news conference in the southern town and opposition stronghold of Guayaquil.
Shortly beforehand, three exit polls gave Correa 54 to 55 percent of the vote.
A partial official tally put him ahead with 49 percent of the ballot, with his main opponent, nationalist Lucio Gutierrez, trailing far behind with 31.6 percent.
Only slightly over 11 percent of the ballots have been officially counted.
"We’ve made history," Correa said, although it was still uncertain if his party would garner a majority in elections for Congress, likely key for his pursuit of a socialist agenda.
But Gutierrez was not ready to accept defeat. "The results announced aren’t official, don’t give up the vote count," he said.
"This is a war of information," Gutierrez added, claiming "fraud" had been committed.
Since coming to power in 2006, 46-year-old Correa has been a close ally of regional leftists, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The US-educated economist has taken a tough stance with investors and refused to repay foreign debt, in moves welcomed by supporters who blame the effects of the economic crisis on foreign liberalism.
Correa had nearly two years left of his current term as president of the South American nation that borders Peru and Colombia, but a new constitution approved last year let him bid to start over again.
He has promised to pursue popular social programs funded by oil wealth in the OPEC nation, where 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
But the challenge will be tougher this time as the economic crisis lowers the prices of oil, the country’s main export, and remittances from immigrants abroad — at least 10 percent of the population.
The fight for the 124-seat Congress is still unclear.
Opinion polls give Correa’s ruling Alianza Pais party 60 seats, with the rest in the hands of opposition parties.
In a split Congress, Correa would have to form a tricky coalition with Gutierrez’s Patriotic Society Party and the Institutional Renewal Party of National Action of right-wing billionaire Alvaro Noboa.
The opposition has already complained that Correa’s "authoritarian" government controlled the media during the election campaign.
The opposition accuses Correa’s government of wasting state funds through bad management and worsening the impact of the crisis.
Correa seeks to continue his policies, despite foreign debt of 10 billion dollars, representing 19.7 percent of Ecuador’s GDP. The president declared a moratorium on one third of the debt last December.
"First (look after) our own, first social policies, and afterwards we can service the debt," Correa said last week.
Since coming to power, Correa has launched a state radio and television channel and a weekly program in which he speaks to the country, as well as several newspapers.
His re-election would give some stability to the world’s top banana exporter that has seen three of its previous presidents – between 1996 and 2006 – ousted before the end of their terms.