Ecuador to elect its first woman president, or its youngest

13 Oct 2023 02:31pm
Luisa Gonzalez and Daniel Noboa will face off in Ecuador's presidential elections Sunday after both campaigned in bulletproof vests amid a climate of fear. - AFP FILE PIX
Luisa Gonzalez and Daniel Noboa will face off in Ecuador's presidential elections Sunday after both campaigned in bulletproof vests amid a climate of fear. - AFP FILE PIX

QUITO - Ecuador is gearing up for a presidential runoff Sunday between two relative unknowns: the son of one of the country's richest men and the protege of an exiled former leader convicted of graft.

One could become the country's youngest-ever president, the other, its first woman at the helm. Both have influential backers.

In August, Luisa Gonzalez, a 45-year-old lawyer running for the Citizen Revolution Movement, which describes itself as a progressive socialist party, garnered more votes than any other candidate in the first round of voting with nearly 34 per cent -- not enough for an outright win.

Opinion polls show her rival, 35-year-old businessman Daniel Noboa, gaining ground after his first-round showing of 23 per cent, and possibly even overtaking Gonzalez -- pointing to a tight race.

The winner will be elected to only 16 months in office until May 2025, completing the term of outgoing Guillermo Lasso, who called a snap election to avoid a possible impeachment for alleged embezzlement.

- Hand-picked -

Gonzalez, who started politics on the right of the political spectrum, later switched sides and served in the government of socialist Rafael Correa, whose policies she has vowed to pursue but whom she insists will be nothing more than an advisor.

Correa, who used an oil bonanza to fund high government spending during his 2007-2017 administration, has lived in exile in Belgium since leaving office. He was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for corruption related to public contracts.

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Gonzalez, an avid cyclist, marathon runner, tattoo enthusiast and animal lover, served as an assemblywoman and advisor to Correa, who continues to loom large over Ecuadoran politics.

From humble origins in a small town in Ecuador's southwest, she holds master's degrees in economics and management.

One of her stated priorities will be restoring security in a country where the homicide rate quadrupled in four years as rival drug gangs fight an increasingly bloody war for supremacy.

She has also highlighted a focus on social spending, particularly on health and education.

"We are going to rebuild that dignified homeland, that safe homeland, that homeland of peace, of love, of tranquility," she said after the first round.

A single mother of two sons -- she had the first when she was just 16 -- Gonzalez has sought to portray herself as a defender of women's rights, but has come under fire for her opposition as a lawmaker in parliament to abortion, even in cases of rape.

To try and correct her image, the evangelical Christian has included a young woman holding a green handkerchief -- the color of the abortion rights movement -- in one of her campaign ads.

- Young blood -

Noboa, at 35, would be Ecuador's youngest-ever president if elected, and one of the youngest in the world.

The son of a wealthy banana baron, he has described himself as leftist. His newly formed National Democratic Action alliance incorporated parties from the center and left of the political spectrum, but its economic philosophy is liberalism.

Rising from political obscurity, Noboa was catapulted into the limelight after he showed up to the only televised debate ahead of the first round wearing a bulletproof vest, claiming he had received death threats.

The debate came shortly after the assassination in broad daylight of anti-graft and anti-cartel candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

Noboa managed to garner the second-largest share of the votes despite being little-known except for a two-year stint as a lawmaker.

His father, Alvaro Noboa, had failed five times in bids to become president, losing to Correa in 2006.

Noboa has embraced social media to get his message across, and ran much of his campaigning online.

In recent days his name trended on platforms such as X and TikTok thanks to viral videos, posted by citizens, of thousands of human-sized cardboard "Noboas" showing up at house parties, riding the bus or lazing on the beach.

"People are excited, people are motivated, people want something new," Noboa has said, presenting himself as a candidate for change over continuity.

Among his proposals is introducing a jury system to judge cases of corruption -- one of the country's main challenges along with drug trafficking.

He also wants to militarise borders and create offshore prisons on barges to isolate the most violent inmates.

Noboa, who studied business administration at New York University and obtained a degree in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School, has also vowed to prioritize job creation through tax incentives and credit facilities to help small businesses.

He is married and has two children. - Paola Lopez / AFP