QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — The hand-picked candidate of socialist President Rafael Correa headed to victory in the opening round of Ecuador's presidential election, although it was uncertain late Sunday whether he would get enough votes to avoid a runoff against his nearest rival.
With more than 80 percent of polling stations reporting just before midnight, ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno had almost 39 percent of the votes, compared to just under 29 percent for former banker Guillermo Lasso, the closest contender among seven opposition candidates.
To avoid a runoff, Moreno needed to win a majority of the total vote, or to have a 40 percent share while holding a 10-point lead over his nearest rival.
Even before the first vote results, Moreno was quick to declare himself the winner based on inconclusive exit polls and called on Lasso to recognize defeat. He later softened his stance while addressing supporters late in the night, but still said he was confident he would cross the required threshold as results came in from consulates overseas and western Manabi province — where the government spent heavily to rebuild from last year's 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
"I have faith we'll reach 40 percent," he said before breaking into song.
Given the tight race, electoral authorities decided against announcing a quick count of results and appealed for patience as official results came in. A count of statistically representative tally sheets nationwide by a respected private group predicted Moreno would finish on top with 38.8 percent to 28 percent for Lasso, with a 1 point margin of error.
The opposition candidate showed no sign of throwing in the towel as hundreds of Lasso supporters gathered outside the National Electoral Council, saying they would remain there until a runoff was confirmed.
"We're protesting so that there's no fraud," Eduardo Ponce said while police in riot gear nervously cordoned off the sometimes rowdy crowd shouting anti-Correa slogans. "Everyone I know voted for Lasso, so how can Moreno be winning?"
The outcome was being watched closely in Latin America, where conservative leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Peru have assumed power in the past 18 months after the end of a commodities boom that boosted leftists like Correa.
Outside the region, much of the interest in the election focused on what the outcome might mean for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012. Moreno has indicated he would allow Assange to remain while Lasso vowed to evict the Australian activist within 30 days of taking office.
The contest put Correa's legacy on the line as well. The self-declared 21st century socialist who took office in 2007 ushered in a period of stability after a severe economic crisis that saw three presidents toppled in protests and the adoption of the U.S. dollar to control rampant inflation. While Correa has been praised for reducing inequality and overhauling Ecuador's infrastructure, opinion polls said a majority of Ecuadoreans favor change.
Formerly flush government budgets have been slashed and thousands of people at state-run companies laid off as oil revenues in the OPEC nation declined. The International Monetary Fund expects Ecuador's economy to shrink 2.7 percent this year, and analysts predict the new president will have to seek a bailout from the Washington-based IMF to address financial problems made worse by last year's earthquake.
Several losing candidates who shared Lasso's conservative agenda and fatigue with Correa's iron-fisted rule threw their support behind Lasso in an eventual second round, including former congresswoman Cynthia Viteri, who finished third with more than 16 percent. Former Quito Mayor Paco Moncayo, the only leftist among the seven trailing candidates, said he wouldn't ask the 7 percent of voters who backed him to vote for either candidate in the runoff.
Moreno urged voters to uphold Correa's "Citizens' Revolution," while his challengers vowed to eliminate taxes they contend hamper growth and to strengthen democratic institutions they say were weakened by Correa's leadership.
As many as a third of voters recently declared themselves undecided amid low-energy campaigning as the charismatic Correa prepares to retire from politics.
In the final weeks before the election, corruption allegations involving Moreno's running mate, current Vice President Jorge Glas, dominated airwaves. A leaked video widely shared on social media shows a disgraced former Cabinet minister undergoing a lie detector test and accusing Glas of taking some of the $12 million in bribes paid to state-run PetroEcuador for construction of a refinery.
Glas denied any wrongdoing.
"We've shown that by campaigning honorably you can win elections," Moreno told supporters after the exit polls were released. "We've had to endure terrible attacks that can't be justified just because of the heat of an election."
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.