Editor's note: This article was revised Sunday night with updates from Ecuador's vote.
QUITO, Ecuador — Scandals, economic crises and popular uprisings: This country has had its fair share of them in recent years, prompting seven leadership changes in the last decade. Heads of state came and went so fast they became known as disposable “Kleenex presidents.”
So it may come as a surprise that many Ecuadoreans want to hang on to their current leader. President Rafael Correa declared himself the winner in Sunday's election, after exit polls projected a wide victory. Early results gave Correa 56.7 percent of the vote, a roughly 30-point lead over his nearest rival, banker Gillermo Lasso.
This ushers in a rare period of political continuity for this tiny South American country and oil-producing OPEC member by giving Correa a full decade in the top job.
"We've made history in a country where no government from 1996 to 2006 finished its term .... Today [an election] was won in a single round," Correa told a crowd Sunday from the balcony of the presidential palace in Quito, according to Agence France-Presse.
"We are here to serve you," he said. "Nothing for us, everything for you: the people who deserve the right to be free."
A charismatic leftist economist leading what he calls a “citizen’s revolution,” Correa, 49, was first elected in 2006, then quickly re-elected in 2009 under a new constitution.
Key to his success has been a boom in oil sales, the country’s main export. Record high prices have nearly tripled government revenues over the past six years and provided the government with billions to invest in highways, hospitals, schools and social programs.
The financial wiggle room has also enabled Correa to strike a more independent path than his pro-American predecessors.
In a country where the US dollar is the official currency, Correa has criticized Washington, expelled the US ambassador, and forged new alliances with US critics Venezuela, China and Iran.
He even offered political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s evading arrest in London by taking refuge in Ecuador’s Embassy there.
All of that has boosted Correa’s standing among average Ecuadoreans. The only real drama in the eight-candidate race on Sunday was whether Correa would win enough votes to avoid a runoff. That required him to land more than 50 percent of the vote or take more than 40 percent of the ballots while topping the second-place finisher by at least 10 points.
The government took full credit. “The polls are predicting a huge victory for Correa and that is because the reality in Ecuador has changed,” Patricio Barriga, the government’s acting communications secretary, said before the ballot. “There really has been a citizen’s revolution with new roads, new schools and new hydroelectric dams. There have been huge improvements from six years ago.”
There have been other changes. The poverty rate dropped from 38 percent to 29 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to the World Bank.
By most accounts, Correa — who has a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois — has done a decent job of managing the economy and the influx of petrodollars. Unlike Correa's ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he’s mostly refrained from interfering with the private sector and expropriating businesses. Social programs range from new school uniforms and subsidized mortgages to monthly cash stipends to the disabled and poor families.
Such government initiatives have made a huge difference, said Quito taxi driver Miguel Cualchi.
When his 90-year-old mother suffered a herniated disk, doctors performed her surgery free of charge at a government hospital and later provided her with post-op treatment and prescription drugs. In the past, Cualchi said, his mother would have had to rely on an expensive private hospital or public hospitals that lacked medicine and bed sheets.
Although he works independently, Cualchi says he’s now eligible for social security, thanks to the Correa government. Meanwhile, driving his cab has become easier because of improvements to streets and highways. “They’re excellent,” he said. “Smooth as a carpet.”
Correa used the new roads to barnstorm the country drumming up support for his policies and his re-election effort.
“There isn’t one province he hasn’t visited,” said Andres Gonzalez, dean of the political science department at the University of San Francisco in Quito. “He goes everywhere. It’s amazing. If you are a peasant in rural Cotopaxi province and the president comes to visit you, of course you will vote for him.”
Correa was also blessed with a weak field of opposition candidates. They include Lucio Gutierrez, one of the former Kleenex presidents who was ousted in 2005, banana magnate and perennial presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa, and Guillermo Lasso, a banker who faces long odds because Ecuadoreans are still angry about a government bail-out of the country’s banks in 1999.
“There are a lot of people who don’t support Correa, but they can’t figure out who to vote for,” said Santiago Basabe, a political analyst at the FLACSO think tank in Quito.
But Basabe and other experts increasingly fear Correa may be amassing too much power.
A new constitution, approved in 2008, gave more control to the executive branch while the courts and government watchdog institutions have been stacked with Correa’s allies. What’s more, the president could soon control the legislative branch. On Sunday, Correa’s Alianza Pais (Country Alliance) party will try to win a majority in the 124-seat National Assembly.
One result is that allegations of official corruption often go nowhere while the courts tend to come down on the side of Correa and his allies. Correa has also waged a blistering campaign designed to intimidate the independent media, according to press freedom groups like Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The president regularly insults journalists. He sued El Universo, the country’s leading daily newspaper, and won a $40 million slander settlement before issuing a pardon. Under a new law clamping down on electoral press coverage, the newsmagazine Vistazo was fined $80,000 last year for an editorial that urged voters to reject a ballot referendum.
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“Correa doesn’t take criticism well,” said Jose Velasquez, news manager at the private Teleamazonas TV station, which is often critical of the government. “I mean journalists, we question people. We question situations. And he just doesn’t like that. He’s not used to it. He’s not used to someone saying: ‘You might be wrong.’”
Government supporters counter that it is precisely this firm hold over the ship of state that's given Ecuador a measure of political stability and economic prosperity. In the past, they said, presidents were too easily cowed by lawmakers, the news media and business organizations. Correa, they say, will not be disposed of so easily.