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Voters in Ecuador head to the polls on Sunday amid a wave of political violence unprecedented in the South American country’s modern history.
The country will choose from a crowded field of eight presidential candidates and elect a new legislature. If no presidential candidate wins with more than 40 per cent of the vote and by a 10 per cent margin, a run-off will be held in October. Given the large number of candidates, pollsters expect a second round.
The snap election was thrown into chaos last week by the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio, a centre-right anti-corruption candidate when he was leaving a rally in Quito, the capital.
Police are holding six Colombian nationals in connection with his murder, while the government has pledged to pursue the plot’s “intellectual authors”. Authorities have yet to connect a motive to the assassination.
Leftist Luisa González was the frontrunner in the polls ahead of a media blackout earlier this month. Her mentor, former president Rafael Correa, has been campaigning on her behalf from exile in Belgium, where he is living to avoid a corruption conviction in Ecuador.
The security crisis in the once-peaceful country of 18mn has dominated much of the campaign. About 3,500 people have been killed in the first six months of the year, up from last year’s total of 4,800 people were murdered, which was quadruple the number in 2018, according to the interior ministry.
Drug-trafficking groups have expanded their presence in Ecuador in recent years, taking advantage of relatively lax security at ports along the Pacific.
“The first thing that needs to happen in Ecuador is that the violence ends,” said José Castillo, a 30-year-old music producer in Quito who plans to vote for González. “But the rightwing won’t be able to stop it.”
Doménica Ochoa, an architect who supports investor-friendly centre-right candidate Otto Sonnenholzner, said: “Security is my number one concern. Because without security there won’t be foreign investment in Ecuador.”
Political violence is roiling the country, with three politicians murdered in the past month, including Villavicencio. Agustin Intriago, the mayor of port city Manta, was assassinated at a public event in late July, and Pedro Briones, an organiser loyal to Correa, was shot dead in Esmeraldas, a violent coastal province on the Colombian border, on Monday.
On Saturday, a shootout occurred near Sonnenholzner, a former vice-president, while he was dining at a restaurant in Guayaquil. Police have said the gunfire was not directed at the candidate but due to a nearby robbery.
Another candidate, Daniel Noboa, the son of banana magnate Álvaro Noboa, said on Thursday that his motorcade came under fire. Interior minister Juan Zapata later said that Noboa was not targeted.
Zapata has said that 100,000 police and soldiers would be deployed on Sunday across the country, where voting is mandatory. Initial results are expected later on Sunday evening.
The hastily arranged election was triggered in May when President Guillermo Lasso dissolved congress using a constitutional clause known as “mutual death”.
The former banker, who is not seeking re-election, was facing impeachment charges in the opposition-controlled national assembly over alleged embezzlement related to contracts signed before his tenure.
Two referendum questions are also on the ballot, over whether to halt oil drilling at a field in the Amazon and mining in vast tracts of land near Quito known as the Chocó Andino. Voters are expected to approve both measures.
Whoever wins the presidency will have to manage a widening fiscal deficit and rising debt service costs in the country, a big oil and shrimp exporter.
Domenica Avila, an Ecuadorean political analyst and researcher at King’s College London, said the violence around the election might benefit law-and-order candidate Jan Topic and Christian Zurita, who replaced Villavicencio on the ticket, but added that it reflected badly on Ecuador’s institutions.
“How can we speak about democracy when state institutions can’t guarantee that Ecuadorians safely exercise their right to vote?”
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