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

A soldier guards a polling station during a snap presidential election in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. The special election was called after President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May to avoid being impeached.(AP Photo/Carlos Noriega)

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) — Voters in Ecuador cast their ballots in 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. Six Colombian men have been arrested in connection with Villavicencio’s killing.

Interior Minister Juan Zapata said last 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 front-runner 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 will 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.

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.

Central Guayaquil experienced unusually heavy traffic Sunday along two main roads that lead to a number of voting centers, including one at the University of Guayaquil.

Isaac Perez, 31, said he voted only out of obligation and doesn’t think any of the candidates will fix the country’s social problems, including subpar public education, that he said are contributing to the rise in crime.

“Nobody votes for pleasure. We must go out (to vote),” Pérez, a warehouse worker, said outside the university. “I don’t think anyone is going to change anything. On Monday, one still has to go work to support one’s family.”

Food vendors lined up along the sidewalk outside the school entrance that led to the voting center. Vendors also offered laminating people’s voting proof receipts for 25 cents.

Jamndrye Correa, 18, voted for president for the first time. He said he cast his ballot with crime and violence in mind, but acknowledged he thinks no candidate is ready to tackle violence of the magnitude that Ecuador is experiencing.

“The crime is very advanced. Everyone is afraid of crime,” said Correa, a student who was robbed at gunpoint about two years ago outside his home.


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