GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) — An heir to a fortune built on Ecuador's main crop of bananas has pulled off an upset by advancing to the country's presidential runoff election in which he will face an ally of a convicted former president who remains an influential figure in the South American country.
Daniel Noboa and leftist Luisa González, both young and with little political experience, were the two highest vote-getters in Sunday's special presidential election. They will have to convince Ecuadorian voters that they have what it takes to curb unprecedented rates of violence over the past three years.
None of the eight candidates in Sunday's polling received enough support to be declared winner. The election 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 one of the presidential candidates earlier this month.
With about 94% of votes counted as of Monday, results from the National Electoral Council had 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 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.
Noboa's political career began in 2021, when he earned a seat in the National Assembly and chaired its Economic Development Commission. Noboa, 35, opened an event organizing company when he was 18 and then joined his father's Noboa Corporation, where he held management positions in the shipping, logistics and commercial areas.
The U.S.-educated Noboa arrived by helicopter to vote Sunday and wore a bulletproof vest while campaigning and even while debating other candidates on television. His father, Álvaro Noboa, is the richest man in Ecuador thanks to growing and shipping bananas and other ventures. The elder Noboa unsuccessfully ran for president five times.
Surrounded by supporters, the younger Noboa told reporters after polls closed Sunday 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."
Juan Francisco Camino, a political science professor at Ecuador's University of the Hemispheres, said one of the key factors in Noboa's surprising result Sunday could be the social assistance work he quietly carries out through a nonprofit chaired by his mother, Anabella Azin.
Camino said Noboa funded food and medical assistance in impoverished and rural communities "in a context in which the state is absent in those areas. It has had a strong impact." He added that Noboa's image as "young, sporty, serene and, above all, with extensive training abroad" also earned him support among some voters.
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.
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 reports of injuries or damage.
Candidate Christian Zurita trailed Noboa and González with 16% of support. 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 increasing violent crime 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)."
González, a 45-year-old 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.
The winner of the Oct. 15 runoff will govern only for the remainder of Lasso's unfinished term, meaning less than two years.
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.
Auto part shop saleswoman Gabriela Quimiz was among the voters who cast ballots Sunday at the University of Guayaquil. Quimiz, 20, said she voted for González because of her affiliation with Correa, who she recalled as having given cash bonuses and homes to people while in office.
"We all want the country to improve and for this crime to end," Quimiz said outside the university.