© Reuters. Christian Zurita, who is replacing slain presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, and vice presidential candidate Andrea Gonzalez gesture after a news conference, in Guayaquil, Ecuador August 16, 2023. REUTERS/Vicente Gaibor del Pino


By Alexandra Valencia

QUITO (Reuters) – Candidates vying to be Ecuador’s next president held closing campaign events on Thursday, ahead of voting over the weekend in a contest clouded by the murder of anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

More than 13 million Ecuadoreans are eligible to head to polls on Sunday to elect a replacement for conservative President Guillermo Lasso, who called early elections to halt an impeachment process against him.

Candidates have pledged to fight crime and improve the struggling economy, amid sharply rising violence blamed on drug traffickers and unemployment woes, which has increased migration.

“The new government must be more decided and courageous,” said Milton Oleas, a 67-year-old who works in the construction industry, who said he still had not decided who to vote for. “The president cannot doubt what they do and must be valiant in taking decisions.”

Last week, Villavicencio, a former investigative journalist and lawmaker, was gunned down while leaving a campaign event.

Candidates, who have beefed up protections and kept their schedules limited since the murder, held rallies and other events around the country.

Local media reported gunfire had interrupted a caravan held by candidate Daniel Noboa in Duran, in Guayas province. But the national police said on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter, that no attack had taken place.

Noboa himself said there had been an attack – though he did not specify what kind – and that no one was hurt.

Reuters could not independently verify Noboa’s account.

Luisa Gonzalez, a protege of former President Rafael Correa, was ahead in opinion polls before Villavicencio’s murder, with about 30% of voting intention. There have been no polls published since.

She held a closing event in capital Quito on Wednesday and was holding a large event in Guayaquil on Thursday.

Gonzalez has promised to use $2.5 billion from international reserves to shore up the struggling economy if elected and bring back social programs implemented by Correa – who has since been convicted of corruption – during his decade in power.

“A firm hand against crime, against violence and against crime gangs, but a hand of solidarity and love for our people,” Gonzalez said at the Wednesday rally, in which Correa participated remotely from Mexico. “We will take control of the country. It is the time to lift up the homeland with dignity.”

A candidate would need to get 50% of the vote, or 40% if they are 10 points ahead of their nearest rival, to win outright on Sunday. Otherwise a second round will take place on Oct. 15.

Environmentalist Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez, who has been in the top five of the eight candidates in recent polls, pledged a government of the people during a morning rally in Quito.

“The people are here now building popular power; the people are building from the bottom up participative and ecological democracy,” Perez said. “We are committing to have zero tolerance for corruption, for organized crime, for all structural violence.”

Businessman Otto Sonnenholzner told supporters in Machala, in southern Ecuador, that it was criminals who should be afraid, not citizens.

“The criminal that raises a gun against a citizen should get a bullet. The police officer who hits him will get a medal and the backing of this president, who will make sure we respect life and that impunity doesn’t exist,” Sonnenholzner said.

Law and order candidate Jan Topic, who says he served in the French Foreign Legion, told journalists after a closing campaign event in Guayaquil that he was asking humbly for votes.

“Leaving politicking behind, leaving behind lies and defamation, we will build Ecuador together in a brutally honest way, an Ecuador without fear, of happiness, progress, an Ecuador in peace,” Topic said.

Villavicencio’s Construye party held a memorial mass in Quito, with heavy security.

His replacement, Christian Zurita, whose candidacy was officially approved by the electoral council late on Wednesday, has promised to better equip the police and enshrine intelligence protocols to fight crime, using international loans to shore up social programs.

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