GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Ecuadorian voters looking for a new leader to help curb the country’s unprecedented violence will have to head to the polls again in October for a runoff that is likely to see the ally of a convicted former president vie against the principal heir of a banana growing and exporting empire.
No candidate in Sunday’s special presidential election received enough support to be declared winner. The election process took place under the watch of tens of thousands of police officers and soldiers deployed across the country, partly in response to the assassination of a presidential candidate earlier this month.
With more than 85% the votes counted late Sunday, results from the National Electoral Council had leftist Luisa González in the lead, with about 33% of support. She had been the frontrunner heading into the contest, but the Election Day’s surprise came from former lawmaker Daniel Noboa who received about 24% votes even though he never placed above fifth place in polls.
To win outright, a candidate needed 50% of the vote, or to have at least 40% with a 10-point lead over the closest opponent.
Early Monday, a magnitude 5.5. earthquake rattled Guayaquil, the port city that has been the epicenter of the country’s violence. Buildings shook and people rushed into the streets, evacuating a hotel in the business district. The quake was centered 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) east of Machala and was 60 kilometers (37 miles) deep, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
Christian Zurita was in third place with 16%. His name was not on the ballot, but he replaced Fernando Villavicencio, whose killing this month as he left a campaign rally in Quito, the capital, laid bare people’s fears over unprecedented violence in a country they considered peaceful up until three years ago.
“For me, it is an honor to be in third place in these elections,” Zurita said while wearing a bulletproof vest. “We have a lot to be proud of. This candidacy has been a light for the country because it is based on the moral stature of those of us who have fought for this country and even died (for it).”
Villavicencio’s killing heightened people’s concerns over the violent crime affecting Ecuadorians in low-income and wealthy neighborhoods nationwide. Many people interpreted it as a sign that not even politicians are safe anymore.
Gen. Fausto Salinas, commander general of the National Police, said one person was arrested for false voting, two for harassment and resisting arrest and more than 20 for unlawfully carrying guns.
González, a lawyer and former lawmaker, spent much of her campaign highlighting her affiliation with the party of former President Rafael Correa. The former president remains influential even though in 2020 he 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.
Noboa, 35, was the youngest of the eight candidates and had not appeared higher than fifth place in polls going into the election. He is the son of Alvaro Noboa, who sought Ecuador’s presidency five times and grew an empire based on bananas, the country’s main crop.
María Cristina Bayas, a professor at the University of the Americas, said Sunday’s results were “unexpected, surprising, but hopeful in a certain way, because they give rise to a new voice, which is Noboa.” She added that he represents an electorate looking for a new political presence with a good academic background.
Surrounded by supporters, the younger Noboa told reporters that he has not achieved his goal because he has not yet won the presidency. “Tomorrow, we will have to start working again campaigning. There’s a runoff.”
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.
The winner of the Oct. 15 runoff will govern only for the remainder of Lasso’s unfinished term, meaning less than two years.
Voting in Ecuador is mandatory for most voters, and many of them weighed the risk of getting robbed against a fine and inconveniences they could face for not voting.
In addition to a universal demand for safety, the new president will need to address an economy struggling to recover from 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.
“Those of us who have children hope for a better economy,” said Karina Navarro, 44. “If the economy grows, jobs will be generated, and there will be a domino effect. It will improve the crisis in terms of assaults, robberies, killings.”
Navarro, an accountant, voted in Samborondón, an upper-class area with gated communities separated from Guayaquil by a river. “Honestly, I don’t go out anymore because they even rob in gated communities,” she said.
Voters were also electing a new National Assembly and deciding two ballot measures — one on whether to stop oil extraction in a portion of the Amazon jungle and the other on whether to authorize the exploitation of minerals such as gold, silver and copper in forests of the Andean Choco around Quito.
On Sunday, children joined parents and grandparents who voted at the University of Guayaquil.
Jamndrye Correa, 18, voted for president for the first time. He said he cast his ballot with crime and violence in mind.
“Everyone is afraid of crime,” said Correa, a student who was robbed at gunpoint about two years ago outside his home.
Associated Press writers Gonzalo Solano and Gabriela Molina in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.