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Ecuadorans began voting Sunday in national elections in which President Rafael Correa is the overwhelming favorite to return to office and possibly gain greater backing for his brand of socialism.
Three private opinion polls show Correa, who first came to power in 2007, with between 48.2 and 61.5 percent support, far ahead of his nearest rival, banker Guillermo Lasso.
That would enable the charismatic US-educated economist to win another four year term in the first round of voting, and possibly pick up a majority in Ecuador's Congress.
"He needs a reliable, solid and obedient majority," said Simon Pachano, a political analyst. "He has problems now because he does not have a majority in the assembly and has to put it together with alliances."
Polling opened throughout the South American country at 7:00 am (1200 GMT) and will end at 5:00 pm (2200 GMT), with 76,200 soldiers and police providing security, the interior ministry said.
An outspoken voice of the Latin American left, the 49-year-old Correa used his final campaign rally on Thursday to appeal to supporters "to defeat the conspirators at the ballot box and make the citizens' revolution irreversible."
A self-declared foe of neo-liberal economics, Correa has taken on big business and media groups, imposing new contracts on oil companies and renegotiating the country's debt while touting his poverty reduction efforts.
After clashing with privately-owned media, which he accuses of backing a police revolt in 2010, Correa barred his ministers from talking with opposition newspapers.
And while he presents himself as a "defender of freedom of expression," Correa wants to enact a new media regulation law.
Last year, Correa irritated the United States by granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at Ecuador's embassy in London after the anti-privacy group released tens of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic reports.
Among his advisers is former hacker Kevin Mitnick, a 49-year-old American who spent five years in prison in the United States for hacking into US telecommunications systems.
Critics accuse Correa of scaring away foreign capital, pointing to his friendships with the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, though the Ecuadoran president has been more pragmatic than his leftist allies.
At stake in the elections besides the presidency are the vice presidency and 137 seats in the unicameral Congress. There are 11.7 million registered voters.
To avoid a second round, a candidate must win either 50 percent of the valid vote, or 40 percent with a 10 point lead over the nearest contender.
Currently, Correa's Alianza Pais party holds the largest bloc of seats in the Congress, but Correa told supporters Thursday he needed an absolute majority to deepen his "socialist revolution."
"Very possibly there will be a ruling party majority," said pollster Santiago Nieto, who predicted that Correa would, however, stop short of a radical overhaul of Ecuador's political system.
Lasso, who was finance minister during an economic crisis in the 1990s, has struggled to woo voters, with polls showing that only 10 percent would vote for him.
The other candidates include former president Lucio Gutierrez, a retired army colonel who was ousted by Congress amid a popular revolt in 2005, and the country's richest man, Alvaro Noboa.
Correa has brought a measure of political stability to Ecuador, which had seven presidents in the turbulent decade that preceded him, including three who were overthrown.
Ironically, helping protect the integrity of the vote is Kevin Mitnick, who once gained notoriety as America's most wanted computer hacker. He now heads a thriving Internet consultancy tasked with helping keep Sunday's presidential elections in Ecuador secure.
Voting is obligatory for people age 18 to 65, and optional for youths 16 years and older as well as for people over 65.