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Leftist Rafael Correa, whose friendship with Venezuela's anti-US leader and calls to limit foreign debt payments have caused concern in Washington, appeared to have easily won presidential elections that his banana tycoon rival claims were being rigged.
A victory by the tall, charismatic Correa would strengthen South America's tilt to the left, with Ecuador joining left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
"We receive this triumph with deep serenity and humility," the 43-year-old US-trained economist told a news conference. "When we take office it will finally be the Ecuadorean people who are assuming power."
With 31 percent of the ballots counted, Correa had nearly 67 percent compared to 33 percent for Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal said before dawn Monday. Election officials said more returns were not expected until later Monday morning. Final official results may not be known until Tuesday.
An unofficial quick count of the votes gave Correa 56.9 percent and Noboa 43.1 percent. The count, by election watchdog Participacion Ciudadana, was based on sample votes from 1,607 stations that reflected voting in 80 percent of Ecuador. The group said the margin of error was less than 1 percentage point.
The result was supported by two exit polls, which showed Correa winning by a similar margin.
But Noboa, a Bible-toting billionaire who counts the Kennedys and Rockefellers among his friends, declined to concede defeat, saying he would wait for the final vote results.
"There has been a scenario in which they are preparing to commit fraud," Noboa told dozens of his supporters in the coastal city of Guayaquil. He said he instructed his campaign chiefs "to go to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and demand that they open the ballot boxes to count vote for vote so there can be no doubt."
The winner will face the tough task of ruling this poor, politically unstable Andean nation, which has had eight presidents since 1996, including three who were driven from office by street protests.
Correa has vowed to clean up corruption and early in the presidential campaign called US President George W. Bush "dimwitted."
Correa won a place in Sunday's runoff by pledging a "citizens' revolution" against the discredited political system. Correa appealed to voters as a fresh face in a field of established politicians.
He pledged to construct 100,000 low-cost homes and copied Noboa's promise to double to US$36 a (â‚¬27.5) "poverty bonus" that 1.2 million poor Ecuadoreans receive each month.
During the campaign, Correa called for Ecuador to cut ties with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He also wants to hold a referendum to rewrite the constitution to reduce the power of traditional parties and limit U.S. military activities in Ecuador.
At his first news conference following the election, Correa said Ecuador could rejoin the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC.
"If it is possible we will rejoin OPEC," he said. Ecuador, which produces some 535,000 barrels of oil a day, left OPEC in 1993.
He also announced that leftist economists Ricardo Patino and Alberto Acosta, whom he had mentioned earlier as possible Cabinet ministers, would be appointed to head the ministries of economy and energy.
In the first round, Correa's comments on Bush and threat to reduce payments on Ecuador's US$16.1 billion (â‚¬12.3 billion) foreign debt rattled investors and likely cost him support.
He began his campaign identifying with Venezuela's anti-US President Hugo Chavez, but backpedaled when he feared the comparison was hurting him in the polls. That appeared to change somewhat Sunday night.
"Hopefully, we will get much, much closer to Chavez," he told Channel 8 television in an interview. "Chavez is my personal friend, but in my house, my friends aren't in charge, I am. And in Ecuador, it will be Ecuadoreans in charge."
He said he would not rule out also seeking stronger ties to other more moderate leftist presidents like Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and with Washington, if President Bush makes it worth while for Ecuador.
Although, Correa was standing firm on not signing a free trade deal with the United States, "because, among other things, it would destroy our agriculture, cattle and poultry" industries.
Correa was favored to win the first round but came in second to Noboa in the field of 13.
Prior to the second round of voting, however, he softened his radical rhetoric and began to make populist promises of his own, boosting his support.
Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, is new to politics. He served just 106 days last year as finance minister under interim President Alfredo Palacio, who replaced Lucio Gutierrez in the midst of street protests in April 2005.
Noboa, who was seeking the presidency for the third time, had run an old-fashioned populist campaign, crisscrossing Ecuador handing out computers, medicine and money.
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