QUITO, Ecuador — Rafael Correa, a dynamic, polemical economist whose leftist government has won broad backing from the lower classes as it leads Latin America in social spending, is expected to sail to a second re-election Sunday as the Andean nation's president.
His leading opponent, former Banco de Guayaquil executive president Guillermo Lasso, trailed Correa in pre-election polls by more than 20 points in the field of eight candidates.
Correa, 48, has brought uncharacteristic political stability to an oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million people that cycled through seven presidents in the decade before he first took office in 2007.
He won re-election in April 2009 after voters approved a constitutional rewrite that mandated a new ballot, and he would be legally barred from running again following a victory Sunday.
To avoid a runoff, Correa needs a simple majority or 40 percent of the vote plus a 10-point margin over the No. 2 vote-getter.
Correa, a graduate of the University of Illinois-Champaign, focused his campaign on increasing tax revenue and social services. Lasso promised to be friendlier to foreign investment, lower taxes on job-creating companies and roll back actions taken under what Correa calls his "21st century socialism," such as a 5 percent tax on capital removed from Ecuador.
A champion of big government in the mold of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez but less radical, Correa has endeared himself to the lower classes by making education and health care more accessible, building or improving 4,870 miles of highways and, the government says, creating 95,400 jobs in the past four years.
Correa's critics, including leading international human rights groups, consider him an intolerant bully who arbitrarily wields his near-monopoly on state power against anyone who threatens what he sees as his "citizens' revolution."
Correa has eroded the influence of opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church and the news media and used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition journalists. Critics decry his stacking of the courts with friendly judges and the government's prosecution of indigenous leaders for organizing protests against Correa's opening up of Ecuador to large-scale mining without their consent.
Oil prices that have been hovering around $100 a barrel have been a blessing for Correa. Petroleum accounts for more than half Ecuador's export earnings and have allowed it to lead the region in 2011 in public spending as a portion of gross domestic product at 11.1 percent, according to the United Nations.
Voters like Fabian Garzon, a 48-year-old messenger and cleaner, credit Correa with significantly improving their lives.
Garzon now has what he's always dreamed of: his own apartment, which he is buying with a $24,000 government mortgage issued by an institution created by Correa's government. His monthly salary, meanwhile, has more than doubled over the past four years, from $200 to $450, and payments for his social security, vacation and other government-mandated contributions are being made regularly.
"I worked 25 years without having my own house and at this age, thank God, I'm able to own my own home," Garzon said.
In all, 1.9 million people receive $50 a month from the state.
Critics complain that the popular handouts to single mothers, needy families and the elderly poor, along with other subsidies, have bloated the government.
The number of people working for the government has burgeoned from 16,000 to 90,000 during Correa's current term, Ecuador's non-governmental Observatory of Fiscal Policy said in a December report.
Correa also has been unable to stop a growing sensation of vulnerability in a country where robberies and burglaries grew 30 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year.
Correa gained a reputation as a maverick early on, defying international financiers by defaulting on $3.9 billion in foreign debt obligations.
He has also kept the United States at arm's length, and upset Britain and Sweden in August by granting asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the online spiller of leaked U.S. government secrets who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual assault.
Correa has cozied up to U.S. rivals Iran and China. The latter is the biggest buyer of Ecuador's oil and holds $3.4 billion in Ecuadorean debt, Finance Minister Patricio Rivera says.
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