Leftist Rafael Correa, a friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who has pledged to radically reform Ecuadorean politics, appeared to have defeated a pro-US banana tycoon in Sunday's presidential election, according to an unofficial quick count and exit polls.
A victory by Correa, 43, would strengthen South America's tilt to the left. But rival candidate Alvaro Noboa declined to concede defeat, saying he would wait for the official count to be finished. That may take until Tuesday morning.
The quick count gave Correa 56.9 percent and Noboa 43.1 percent. The count, by the citizens election watchdog Participacion Ciudadana, was based on a sampling of votes from 1,607 stations that reflected voting in 80 percent of Ecuador. There were more than 36,000 voting stations. 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.
"I know in my interior that I won," Noboa, 56, said in a television interview. "The electoral tribunal will give the official figure once it has finished the vote count."
Correa, speaking later at a news conference where reporters treated him as president-elect, said: "We receive this very high honor that the Ecuadorean people have bestowed on us with profound serenity, with profound hope."
Correa is a US-trained economist who has vowed to clean up corruption and early in the presidential campaign called US President George W. Bush "dimwitted." Noboa is a Bible-toting populist whose campaign speeches were peppered with references to God.
Tall and charismatic, 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 has 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.
Correa's election would add another members to South America's grouping of left-leaning nations, which already includes Venezuela, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
Noboa, a billionaire, had run an old-fashioned populist campaign, crisscrossing Ecuador, from its Pacific coast to the Andes and eastward to the Amazon jungle, handing out computers, medicine and money.
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.
Before voting Sunday in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Noboa read a passage from the Bible in the midst of a mob of supporters pushing to touch him. He then fell to his knees, asking God for his support and saying all he wanted was "to serve, to serve, to serve" the poor.
"Like Christ, all I want is to serve ... so that the poor can have housing, health care, education, jobs."
Georgina Cornejo, a 59-year-old housewife waiting to vote in a middle-class suburb on Quito's south side. said she was casting her ballot for Correa "because he's the lesser of two evils and because he represents a new option. bWe're hoping he doesn't let us down."
In the coastal city of Guayaquil, Noboa's stronghold, Arnulfo Napoleon, a 50-year-old security guard voting at a school in a poor neighborhood, said he was supporting Noboa, who is running for the third time.
"He's lost two elections. It's time he win so that he can help the neediest as he has been doing up to now giving away so many things," he said.
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 leader Chavez, but backpedaled when he feared the comparison was hurting him in the polls.
He 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, howeever, he softened his radical rhetoric and began to make populist promises of his own, boosting his support.
Ecuador is an oil-exporting country, but three-quarters of its 13.4 million inhabitants live in poverty.
Noboa had pledged to build 300,000 low-cost homes a year, financing them through government bonds, and to create jobs by persuading his rich foreign friends to invest in Ecuador. He counts the Kennedys and Rockefellers among his friends.
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.
An exit poll by CEDATOS-Gallup showed Correa with 56.8 percent of the votes and Noboa with 43.2 percent. The company said it interviewed 40,000 voters in 21 of Ecuador's 22 provinces. The survey had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
A second pollster Market gave Correa 58 percent to 42 percent for Noboa. The company said it interviewed 75,000 voters in 22 provinces with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.