Ecuador, Peru pick presidents under strict virus measures

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Voters in Ecuador and Peru cast ballots for new presidents Sunday, observing strict public health measures amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in both countries that have prompted the return of lockdowns and heightened concerns over their already battered economies.

Ecuadoreans participated in a runoff between a conservative businessman and a protégé of former leftist President Rafael Correa, while Peruvians chose from 18 candidates in the first round. Voting in the two Andean countries was mandatory.

In Ecuador, voters were ordered to wear masks, carry their own hand sanitizer and pencils, keep a 5-foot (1.5-meter) distance from others and avoid all personal contact in polling places. The only time voters could lower their masks was during the identification process.

“I did not have any problem, the process was fast, and it did not take me more than five minutes. In particular I did not see any major inconvenience or risk of contagion of the coronavirus,” Roberto Saldívar said at a voting site in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

Election officials in Peru scheduled specific times for people to vote to avoid overcrowding at the polls. But despite this measure, crowds, including older adults, formed outside voting sites because not enough poll workers showed up. Many people were exasperated after waiting in line under the sun for hours surrounded by others who broke social distancing guidelines.

All seats in Peru’s congress were also being contested.

Ecuador’s runoff featured leftist candidate Andres Arauz, who led the first round with more than 30% of the votes cast Feb. 7, and former banker Guillermo Lasso, who edged into the final by finishing about a half percentage point ahead of environmentalist and Indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez.

Initial results released by Ecuador’s Electoral Council after polls closed showed Lasso with about 54% and Arauz at just under 46%, with about 37% of votes counted. The winner will replace President Lenín Moreno next month.

Lasso did not make any statements after exit surveys gave mixed indications, while Arauz, at his campaign headquarters, harangued his followers with microphone in hand.

“We are going to remain vigilant until we know the official results in the next few hours,” he said, urging them to be “organized, mobilized and, if applicable, to confront freely as our constitution allows us … to defend our rights.”

Farith Simon, professor at the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, said people should wait “with maturity for the official results and avoid disqualifying speeches” while emphasizing that “it is clear that there are a large number of voters against a political project and a history of 10 to 14 years,” alluding to the governments of Correa and Moreno.

Arauz was backed by the self-exiled Correa, who remains a major force in the troubled Andean nation despite a corruption conviction. Arauz proposed making the wealthy pay more taxes, backing away from agreements with the International Monetary Fund, and finding legal mechanisms to force the repatriation of financial deposits that Ecuadorians have abroad.

Lasso finished second in the last two presidential contests. He favors free-market policies and Ecuador’s rapprochement with international organizations. He has proposed raising the minimum wage to $500, finding ways to include more youth and women in the labor market and eliminating tariffs for agricultural equipment.

“We all wish for an Ecuador of opportunities, free and democratic, where all families can become prosperous,″ Lasso said after voting.

The country is deep in a recession that many fear will worsen as lockdowns return because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. Ecuador has tallied more than 344,000 cases and over 17,200 deaths as of Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Peru’s election turned into a popularity contest in which one candidate even addressed how he suppressed his sexual desires. The crowded field of presidential hopefuls came months after the country’s political chaos reached a new level in November, when three men were president in a single week after one was impeached by Congress over corruption allegations and protests forced his successor to resign in favor of the third.

All former Peruvian presidents who governed since 1985 have been ensnared in corruption allegations, some imprisoned or arrested in their mansions. One died by suicide before police could arrest him.

Claudia Navas, a political, social and security risk analyst with the global firm Control Risks, said the fragmented election was the result of a political system that has 11 parties that lack much ideological cohesiveness, leading many voters to make up their minds only as they are casting their ballots. She said Peruvians overall do not trust politicians, with corruption being a key driver of the disillusionment toward the political system.

Navas said Peru’s congressional election would likely result in a splintered legislature, with no party holding a clear majority and political alliances remaining short lived. She said the new Congress was likely to continue to exercise its impeachment authority to reinforce its own influence and block any initiative that threatens its own power.

“So, we’ll likely continue to see significant legislative populism. This implies moves that seek to satisfy the public short-term needs and demands to the detriment of medium- and long-term sustainability,” Navas said. “Regardless of who wins, we believe that the president is somewhat unlikely to complete his or her term in office because of the populist-type of stance of the Congress and the risk of political instability is likely to persist through the administration.”

To avoid a June runoff, a candidate would need more than 50% of votes cast Sunday, and recent polls indicated that the leading candidate would likely get only about 15% support. Polls put centrist Yonhy Lescano in front, followed by center-right George Forsyth, conservative Rafael López Aliaga and Keiko Fujimori, the opposition leader and daughter of the polarizing former President Alberto Fujimori.

Peru has been among the nations hardest hit by COVID-19, with more than 1.6 million cases and over 54,600 deaths as of Sunday.

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Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano reported this story from Mexico City and AP writer Gonzalo Solano reported from Quito.