Ecuadorians are choosing a new president amid increasing violence that may scare away voters

Voters were encouraged to unite against violence

Ecuador is holding a special election Sunday to pick a new president, with police and soldiers on guard against unprecedented violence, including the assassination of a candidate this month.

Front-runners include an ally of exiled former President Rafael Correa and a millionaire with a security background promising to be tough on crime.

Authorities have deployed more than 100,000 police and soldiers to protect the vote against more violence. Voting in Ecuador is mandatory for most voters, but turnout could be affected because of people’s fears of leaving their homes.

The country's top electoral authority, Diana Atamint, on Sunday urged voters to unite against violence.

Atamint, president of the National Electoral Council, marked the start of the election telling Ecuadorians that voting “should be a strong democratic message of unity and hope to face the violence that threatens our country, even though pain overwhelms us.”

Candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated Aug. 9 as he left a campaign rally in Quito, the capital of the once calm South American country. The killing heightened people’s fears of spending time outside home 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.

“I don’t think the election will change anything,” said pharmacist Leidy Aguirre, 28, who has gradually stopped going out with friends over the past three years, out of fear of being robbed. “Not even politicians are safe.”

Interior Minister Juan Zapata said this past week that the only restriction people will face when voting will be the inspection of backpacks. Street vendors will not be allowed near voting centers.

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.

“I don’t think the election will change anything,” said pharmacist Leidy Aguirre, 28, who has gradually stopped going out with friends over the past three years, out of fear of being robbed. “Not even politicians are safe.”

The ballots were printed before another candidate could substitute for Villavicencio. So they include the name of the late candidate, who was not among the top contenders.

The frontrunner in polling was Luisa González, a lawyer and former lawmaker whose campaign has highlighted her affiliation with the party of Correa, the former president who in 2020 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.

Trailing González, the only female presidential candidate, were millionaire Jan Topic, whose promise of heavy-handed tactics against criminals earned him the nickname “Ecuadorian Rambo;" and Otto Sonnenholzner, who led part of the country’s response to the pandemic while serving as the third vice president during the administration of President Lenín Moreno.

Also running was Yaku Pérez, an Indigenous man promising to defend the environment and water from mining and oil extraction.

To win outright, a candidate needs 50% of the votes, or at least 40% with a 10-point lead over the closest opponent. If needed, a runoff election would take place Oct. 15. The winner will govern only for the remainder of Lasso’s unfinished term, meaning less than two years.

Voters were also electing a new National Assembly and deciding two ballot measures — one addressing whether to stop oil extraction in a portion of the Amazon jungle and the other asking whether to authorize the exploitation of minerals such as gold, silver and copper in forests of the Andean Choco around Quito.

Voting is mandatory in Ecuador for people ages 18 through 64. Those who don't comply face a fine of about $45.

Six Colombian men have been arrested in connection with Villavicencio’s killing.

Candidates have increased their security and Pérez appeared at a campaign rally Thursday wearing a bulletproof vest. That same day, Topic's supporters were bused to a campaign rally at the convention center in Guayaquil. They left purses and backpacks in the buses and entered through makeshift gates manned by private security guards.

In addition to a universal demand for safety, the new president will need to address an economy that is still struggling with the effects of 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.

Data from the Ministry of Finance say state coffers received $991 million from oil between January and July. That’s less than half the $2.3 billion received during the same period last year. Meanwhile, tax collections this year fell by $137 million.

Sandra Jarrín lost her receptionist job four years ago along with about two dozen other colleagues due to staff cuts at the Quito company where they worked. She has not managed to find a new position since then.

“Now everything is virtual, that reduces workspaces,” said Jarrín, 52. In addition to unemployment, she worries about insecurity. “We are not safe outside, or in our homes.”


Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano contributed to this report from Quito, Ecuador.

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