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QUITO (Reuters) - Leftist government candidate Lenin Moreno was within striking distance of winning the first round of Ecuador's presidential election on Monday, as the Andean country's electoral body counted ballots late into the night.
In a nail-biter vote with eight candidates, Moreno was close to the threshold needed to avoid an April runoff and continue a decade-long period of leftist rule, just as South America is moving to the right.
While Ecuadoreans are angry over an economic downturn and corruption scandals, the opposition split its votes among candidates and the ruling Country Alliance remains popular with many poor voters, thanks to social welfare programs.
As results trickled in from Ecuador's Andes, jungle, and Pacific coast, Moreno, a disabled former vice president, was just short of the 40 percent of valid votes and a 10 percentage point difference over his nearest rival to win outright.
He had 38.88 percent of valid votes versus 28.50 percent for Guillermo Lasso, with 80.9 percent of votes counted, the official preliminary election count shows, and appeared to slowly be inching up.
Government supporters said votes from pro-government provinces and Ecuadoreans abroad would propel Moreno, 63, to victory.
But Lasso, 61, was already celebrating in his humid hometown of Guayaquil by the Pacific Coast under a stream of confetti.
Electoral council president Juan Pablo Pozo said there would be a new bulletin on Monday morning, but did not state the time.
A couple of hundred opposition supporters congregated in front of the electoral council headquarters in Quito to demand prompt and transparent results, chanting: "We're not Cuba or Venezuela, out with Correa!"
Outgoing President Rafael Correa was one of the key figures in Latin America's leftist axis that includes Caracas and Havana. He brought stability to the politically turbulent OPEC country but has aggravated many with his confrontational style.
The next president faces strong pressure to create jobs and crack down on graft, amid corruption scandals at state-run oil company PetroEcuador and Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht.
Lasso has campaigned on a platform to revive the economy - which is dependent on exports of oil, flowers and shrimp - by slashing taxes, fostering foreign investment and creating a million jobs in four years.
He has also vowed to remove Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London and denounce Venezuela's Socialist government.
"We all know the country wants change," said student Xavier Luzarraga, 26. "Lasso will be the next president, that's it, out with Correa."
But Lasso has also alienated some voters who deem him a stuffy elitist linked to the 1999 financial crisis when hundreds of thousands lost their savings.
Moreno, who lost the use of his legs two decades ago after being shot during a robbery, has a more conciliatory style than the pugnacious Correa and has promised benefits for the disabled, single mothers and the elderly.
"In the last few years there have been radical changes in the country, like the end of extreme poverty," said Moreno supporter Ramiro Flores, a 60 year-old civil engineer in mountainous capital Quito, outside ruling party headquarters.
Critics say Moreno is woefully ill-equipped to overhaul an economy ailing under low oil prices, steep debts, and high taxes on the middle class.
His running mate, Jorge Glas, who as Strategic Sectors minister oversaw the oil and infrastructure industries, has also been accused by a fugitive oil minister of corruption in the Petroecuador case. Glas has denied wrongdoing. [L1N1G21P9]
The new president takes office on May 24 for a four-year term.
Additional reporting by Jose Llangari, Yury Garcia, Cristina Muñoz, and Yolanda Proaño; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Clarence Fernandez