Why Ecuador's Correa looks set to win Sunday's presidential election

President Correa has been criticized internationally for limiting press freedoms and granting Julian Assange asylum in Ecuador's London embassy. But his social programs and public works projects have been popular at home.

Dolores Ochoa/AP
Under pouring confetti, Ecuador's President and candidate for re-election Rafael Correa waves to supporters during his closing campaign rally in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday. Presidential elections in Ecuador are scheduled for Sunday.

With neon green flags dotting the landscape and pictures of the president overlooking newly-built highways, Ecuador's electoral campaign looks like a one-man show.

That man is Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador since 2007, running for his third term in office on Feb. 17. Electric green is the color of his party, Alianza Pais.

Posters and pictures of the other seven candidates are present, but not as visible as President Correa's.

"We already have a president," says his campaign motto, heard in jingles played on the radio. "We have Rafael."

According to most polls, Correa, a US-trained economist, will take between 50 and 60 percent of the vote this weekend. That is at least 30 percent more than the next most popular candidate, former banker Guillermo Lasso.

But with international headlines condemning Correa for restrictions on freedom of the press after he won several lawsuits against local private media, and more negative coverage following the government's decision to grant WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum in its London embassy, it may come as a surprise that after six years in power, the president remains so popular at home. But for the majority of those living in Ecuador, Correa stands ready for reelection for a reason.

"This is a president who has done something that other presidents haven't done: public works and services," says Ralph Murphine, a US political consultant who advised Correa during his 2006 election campaign.

Before Correa came to power, Ecuador had seven presidents in 10 years and went through a huge financial crisis, which led to the dollarization of the economy in 2000.

Correa's leadership marked numerous changes in Ecuador. High prices for oil exports resulted in higher revenues, which the government invested in social programs and public infrastructure. At the same time, his high popularity gave Correa the opportunity to consolidate his power to carry out what he called a "Citizens's Revolution."

Roads have been paved and expanded; more schools and hospitals have been built, providing free education and healthcare to all Ecuadorians. Particular attention has been given to the disabled, a policy pushed hard by Correa's paraplegic vice president. New legislation was approved, making it compulsory for companies to fill at least 4 percent of positions with people with disabilities.

"This government has thought about us," says Angel Quevedo, a middle-aged man who has been paralyzed from the hips down since an accident 26 years ago.

Mr. Quevedo used to depend on his family and on odd jobs before the new law was passed. Now he works in a factory where he assembles furniture.

"We weren't taken into account before," he says. "Now I feel normal."

Correa's success in certain areas is undeniable. Yet some say that many of his policies were created with the primary goal of keeping himself in power.

"Resources have been invested in a politically smart way," says Sebastian Mantilla, a political analyst at the Latin American Center of Political Studies.

For example, at the beginning of this year's campaign, Correa announced a raise in the government's cash payments for the poor from $35 to $50 a month.

"Public policies and subsidies are needed to temporarily keep certain sectors content," he says, and "they also give him votes."

 There is another drawback to social spending, according to critics.

After defaulting on foreign bonds in 2008, Ecuador's main lender has been China, at high interest rates. Ecuador now owes China at least $3.4 billion.

Correa has also been highly criticized, at home and abroad, for using the judiciary to clamp down on opponents and protesters, as well as private media.

Yet, Sunday's election is likely to confirm that, much like his ally Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Correa's policies have been successful, at least in keeping him highly popular at home.

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