Ecuador's Correa cruises to re-election victory
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa swept to a re-election victory on Sunday that allows him to strengthen state control over the OPEC nation's economy and gives a timely boost to Latin America's alliance of socialist leaders.
The charismatic leftist had 57 percent support compared with 24 percent for runner-up Guillermo Lasso, with almost 40 percent of votes counted. The electoral authority said it did not expect the results to change significantly.
"Nobody can stop this revolution," a jubilant Correa told supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace, after claiming victory.
"The colonial powers are not in charge anymore. You can be sure that in this revolution it's Ecuadoreans in control."
The combative, U.S.-trained economist took power in 2007 and has won strong support among the poor by using booming oil revenues to build roads, hospitals and schools in rural areas and shantytowns.
"Our Ecuador needs a president like Rafael Correa. He has been strong and has not allowed anyone to intimidate him," said Julieta Moira, 46, who is unemployed, as she celebrated outside the presidential palace. "I'm very excited, happy and thankful."
Supporters also gathered in a park in the upscale north end of Quito, waving the signature neon-green flags of Correa's Alianza Pais party.
DEDICATES WIN TO CHAVEZ
Correa, 49, may now be in line to become Latin America's main anti-American voice and de facto leader of the ALBA bloc of leftist governments as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been silenced during his battle with cancer.
Correa said he dedicated his victory to Chavez.
The principal challenge in Correa's new four-year term will be wooing investors needed to boost stagnant oil production and spur the mining industry. A $3.2 billion debt default in 2008 and aggressive oil contract negotiations scared off many.
Critics view Correa as an authoritarian leader who has curbed media freedom and appointed aides to top posts in the judiciary.
"This government has not given us anything good, only insults and taxes. We're tired of all that. I'm concerned that this government has alliances with communist countries," said Celeste Guerrero, a 68-year-old pensioner in Guayaquil.
Even some supporters disapprove of his tempestuous outbursts, confrontations with media and bullying of adversaries.
But the fractured opposition failed to make a consolidated challenge. It fielded seven candidates, making it easy for Correa, and he is now on track for a decade in office.
That is rare stability in a country where three presidents were pushed from office by coups or street protests in the decade before Correa took power in 2007.
He is already the longest-serving president since the return to democracy in the 1970s following a military dictatorship.
Correa's success has hinged in part on high oil prices that allowed for liberal state spending, including boosting cash handouts to 2 million people, and spurred solid economic growth.
He is likely to continue spending heavily to maintain his popularity, but state revenues would dry up if oil prices fell.
He now hopes to diversify the economy away from its dependence on oil, in part by bringing in new investment for the mining sector. Despite promising reserves of gold and copper, mining operations have barely gotten off the ground.
In a news conference on Sunday after polls closed, Correa played down the need for more foreign investment. He insisted the ultimate goal was to ensure economic growth rather than "mortgaging" the country to bring in cash from abroad.
"We welcome foreign investment, and we're already getting plenty of it," Correa said. "Ecuador is one of the most successful economies in Latin America."
Lasso, a wealthy ex-banker and Correa's closest rival, had tried to woo voters with promises of lower taxes. He congratulated Correa on his victory but also took pride in his Creo party taking a quarter of the vote.
"We are now the second-largest political force in the country," said Lasso, who was beaming despite losing.
The other six opposition candidates included former Correa ally Alberto Acosta, former President Lucio Gutierrez and banana magnate and five-time presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa.
Pollsters say some of them focused their campaigns too much on attacking Correa and failed to put forward concrete proposals to entice voters.
Ecuadoreans also chose a new Congress on Sunday.
The Alianza Pais party was expected to win a majority in the legislature, which would let Correa push ahead with controversial reforms, including a media law and changes to mining legislation, without having to negotiate with rivals.
The results of the vote for Congress are not expected to be known for several days, but Correa said he was confident.
"I think we are going to get a majority and we will manage that majority with great responsibility," he told Latin America's Telesur TV network, set up by Chavez and his allies as an alternative to established media.
Correa never shies away from a fight, be it with international bondholders, oil companies, local bankers, the Catholic Church or media that criticize his policies.
He vowed on Sunday to expand state regulations over media groups he has called "dogs" and "hired assassins."
"One of the things we have to fix is an unethical and unscrupulous press that wants to judge, legislate and govern," Correa said. "That goes against the rule of law and we will not allow it."
His criticism of the U.S. "empire" and his clashes with foreign investors and the World Bank have fueled Correa's popularity as a strong-minded leader who stands up to foreign powers that many say meddled in Ecuador's affairs for decades.
He took the global limelight last year when he granted asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange. Critics say he did it to brush off accusations that he is curbing freedom of expression in Ecuador.
(Additional reporting by Jose Llangari and Eduardo Garcia in Quito and Yuri Garcia in Guayaquil; Editing by Kieran Murray, Andrew Cawthorne and Eric Beech)
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