President Rafael Correa casts his vote for the National Assembly members in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Ecuadoreans elect president, vice-president and National Assembly members Sunday with Correa highly favored to win a second re-election. His government has won broad backing from the lower classes as it leads Latin America in social spending.(AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuadorean voters were expected to give a third term Sunday to President Rafael Correa, a polemical economist who has raised living standards for the lower classes and widened their social safety net while being widely criticized as intolerant of dissent.
Correa's top opponent out of a field of eight candidates was former Banco de Guayaquil executive president Guillermo Lasso. An exit poll by the company Cedatos-Gallup showed Correa beating Lasso 61 percent to 20 percent. The poll had a margin of 3.7 percentage points. Official results were expected in the coming hours.
"Presidente! Presidente!" an excited Luzmila Cordova, 33, shouted as she craned to get a look at Correa as he voted in the capital Sunday.
"We get respect from this president and the poor feel like they, too, are human," said Cordova, a maid who traveled from her hometown, Otavalo, with her three small children to watch Correa vote.
The 48-year-old president has brought uncharacteristic political stability to this oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million people that cycled through seven presidents in the decade before he first took office in 2007.
He won re-election in April 2009 after voters approved a constitutional rewrite that mandated a new ballot, and he would be legally barred from running again following a victory Sunday. To avoid a runoff, Correa needed a simple majority or 40 percent of the vote plus a 10-point margin over the No. 2 vote-getter.
A champion of big government in the mold of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez but more respectful of private property, Correa has endeared himself to the lower classes by making education and health care more accessible, building or improving 7,820 kilometers (4,870 miles) of highways and, the government says, creating 95,400 jobs in the past four years.
Lasso, meanwhile, promised to be friendlier to foreign investment, lower taxes on job-creating companies and roll back elements of what Correa calls his "21st century socialism," such as a 5 percent tax on capital removed from Ecuador.
Among voters casting their ballot for Correa in Quito was a grateful Jomaira Espinosa, 18.
"Before (Correa), my family didn't have enough to eat and now it does. There are lots of positive changes in the economy and my father was able to find work," said Espinosa, who added that she expects to be able to study for free at a university thanks to Correa's programs.
Correa's critics, including leading international human rights groups, consider him an intolerant bully who arbitrarily wields his near-monopoly on state power against anyone who threatens what he sees as his "citizens' revolution."
German Calapucha, a 29-year-old accountant, said he voted for one of Correa's challengers, though he didn't say which, because he's tired of Correa's imperiousness.
"He thinks that because he wins elections he has the right to mistreat people," Calapucha said. "I want a country where people respect each other."
Correa has eroded the influence of opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church and the news media and used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition journalists. Critics decry his stacking of the courts with friendly judges and the government's prosecution of indigenous leaders for organizing protests against Correa's opening up of Ecuador to large-scale mining without their consent.
"He is far too insolent and I want there to be freedom of expression," said Laura Realpe, a 59-year-old housewife married to a lawyer who said she voted for Lasso, who she said seems fairer and "more level-headed."
One blessing for Correa has been oil prices that have been hovering around $100 a barrel.
Petroleum accounts for more than half of Ecuador's export earnings and have allowed it to lead the region in 2011 in public spending as a portion of gross domestic product at 11.1 percent, according to the United Nations. Bolivia was second with 10.8 percent.
Voters such as Fabian Garzon, a 48-year-old messenger and cleaner, credit Correa with improving their lives.
Garzon has what he's always dreamed of: his own apartment, which he is buying with a $24,000 government mortgage issued by an institution created by Correa's government. His monthly salary, meanwhile, has more than doubled over the past four years, from $200 to $450, and payments for his social security, vacation and other government-mandated contributions are being made regularly.
"I worked 25 years without having my own house and at this age, thank God, I'm able to own my own home," Garzon said.
In all, 1.9 million people receive $50 a month in aid from the state. Critics complain that the popular handouts to single mothers, needy families and the elderly poor, along with other subsidies, have bloated the government.
The number of people working for the government has burgeoned from 16,000 to 90,000 during Correa's current term, Ecuador's nongovernmental Observatory of Fiscal Policy said in a December report.
Correa also has been unable to stop a growing sensation of vulnerability in a country where robberies and burglaries grew 30 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year.
Correa gained a reputation as a maverick early on, defying international financiers by defaulting on $3.9 billion in foreign debt obligations and rewriting contracts with oil multinationals to secure a higher share of oil revenues for Ecuador.
He has also kept the United States at arm's length while upsetting Britain and Sweden in August by granting asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the online spiller of leaked U.S. government secrets who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual assault.
Correa has cozied up to U.S. rivals Iran and China. The latter is the biggest buyer of Ecuador's oil and holds $3.4 billion in Ecuadorean debt, Finance Minister Patricio Rivera says.