Ecuador's election choices blur

In an election campaign overcrowded with candidates, most of Ecuador's presidential hopefuls have moved toward the center - especially on economic issues.

''This blurring of ideological distinctions,'' writes the morning newspaper El Comercio of Quito, ''has meant we have less of a choice than we expected originally with the number of candidates in the field.''

But for Ecuador's 11 presidential hopefuls - and especially for two front-runners, Leon Febres Cordero and Rodrigo Borja Cevallos - there has been a clear reluctance to commit themselves to specific policies prior to the vote Jan. 29.

None of them seems to want to tie his hands to a policy that might limit his ability to deal with Ecuador's precarious economic situation.

This reluctance to speak out is particularly evident on two issues: Ecuador's austerity measures that may have to be imposed to get the debt paid.

It is possible the reluctance to tackle these issues publicly will dissipate in the expected runoff following Monday's vote. Neither Mr. Febres nor Mr. Borja - nor any other candidate for that matter - is expected to win an absolute majority. A May runoff is a virtual certainty, and most political commentators think it will be a Febres-Borja race.

There are differences between the two. Febres, a member of the Social Christian Party, is an ardent free-enterpriser. Borja, of the Democrat Left Party, favors a strong state role in the economy and controls on the private sector.

But neither man is a total ideologue.

Borja enjoys the support of the business community in Quito, the capital, and has indicated he does not want any more Ecuadorean industries to be nationalized. Rather, he supports the strengthening of existing state enterprises like the oil industry and public housing. He would push consumer-protection laws, which could have an effect on private industry.

Febres has the strong support of the business community in Guayaquil, the nation's largest city and major seaport. He would do away with non-strategic state enterprises. Unless they can become more efficient, he says, they should ''disappear.'' At the same time, he says there has been too much concentration of wealth in the hands of a few businesses.

There is little that could be called radical in either approach. But each springs from a strong populist trend, perhaps natural in a nation politically dominated in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s by the populist views of five-term President Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra.

The candidates represent a new generation of politicians. All are in their 40 s or early 50s.

Commentators are making much of the campaign's sense of ''political responsibility,'' as outgoing President Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea put it.

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