Quito, Ecuador — Ecuador has enough presidential hopefuls to fill a campaign minibus. At latest count, eight of them. And a couple more may try to squeeze aboard for a political ride in the next few weeks.
But this is not so unusual in Ecuador, which has 17 political parties (at last count). No one should be surprised if there are a couple more parties by election day next Jan. 29 - and such parties could play a role in who wins the election.
''If there is one thing we have in abundance,'' comments Rodrigo Aguilar Melchior, a Quito banker, ''it is politics and all the trappings.''
Some Quitenos, as residents of this capital city are known, complain there are too many candidates and parties.
''How can you make a wise choice when you have so many to choose from?'' asked one letter writer to a local newspaper. ''Give me two or three - not eight.''
But may Ecuadoreans are enthused about the chaotic race - having tired of military rule. The past generation has seen two separate series of military governments, the last one ending in 1979. With the winds of political freedom blowing, more and more -Ecuador- eans are testing the political waters.
More important, however, two facts about the candidates and the parties are emerging.
* All eight candidates are relatively young - in their 40s or early 50s. The previous generation has gone into retirement.
* The old, traditional parties in Ecuador are disappearing or reshaping. Of the 17 parties, at least half are new - offshoots of older parties in some cases. Some presidential candidates have chosen vice-presidential running mates from other parties - a sign that some of these parties may eventually unite.
Most of the parties continue Ecuador's long populist tradition. But the candidates and their ideologies range from far right to far left.
The three strongest candidates so far are Leon Febres Cordero, Francisco Huerta Montalvo, and Rodrigo Borja Cevallos.
At the moment, most attention centers on Mr. Febres of the Social Christian Party, a muckraking rightist from Guayaquil who enjoys the support of former President Otto Arosemena Gomez as well as that of remnants of the massive populist political amalgam that gave the late Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra his five presidential wins. Mr. Velasco Ibarra dominated Ecuadorean politics in the 1950s and 1960s.
Conventional wisdom suggests that in the final analysis, Mr. Febres will not win because he scares too many people, including some influential Guayaquil businessmen, with his rightist economic views espousing unbridled capitalism. But at the same time, such views have more popular support today than they did a few years ago.
Moreover, Febres has chosen Radical Liberal Pary leader Blasco Penaherrera Padilla as his running mate. The two may prove a formidable team.
In any case, Febres is not expected to win an absolute majority in the January balloting - nor is anyone else. A runoff, scheduled for May 6, is scheduled to take place between the two top finishers in the January vote.
Dr. Huerta, who may get some strong support from young Guayaquil businessmen, is an effective speaker whose political skills are widely recognized. But some observers regard him as a bit shallow. Yet he has a populist image that fits well into traditional Ecuadorean politics.
Finally, Mr. Borja from the moderate leftist Democratic Left Party is regarded as a bright, but rather uncharismatic speaker. He enjoys support in the Quito business community. The Guayaquil business community, on the other hand, tends to favor Mr. Febres and Mr. Huerta.
Two other politicians are attracting attention. One is Dr. Jaime Hurtado Gonzalez of the Popular Democratic Movement, a Maoist party. He is not expected to win more than 10 percent of the vote, but he will liven up the campaign because of his able oratory and his ability to stir crowds.
The other is Cecilia Calderon de Castro, head of the Radical Alfarista Front, a relatively new party within the populist tradition. This party took a surprising first place in 1980 nationwide municipal elections. Mrs. Castro, an economist, is seen as a politician to watch. She is too young to seek the presidency this year, but the party's broad centrist base is regarded as an asset for her if she should decide to run in the future.