New leftist Ecuador president takes office

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Quito (AFP) - Ecuador's new president Lenin Moreno took office Wednesday, tasked with steering the oil-rich nation, a flagship of the Latin American left, through troubled economic and political waters.

Congress swore in Moreno, 64, as the quieter successor to his ally, one of the feistiest personalities in Latin American politics: leftist Rafael Correa.

Moreno is the first wheelchair user to become Ecuador's leader, and one of few in the world ever to serve as president.

In his inaugural address, he promised to fight corruption and apply "austerity" to streamline government administration costs.

"I am a president for all. I owe this to everyone. I respect everyone," he said.

"I will work for absolutely no one to be left behind."

- 'Social progress' -

The 54-year-old Correa, who served as president for a decade, is one of a generation of colorful leftist leaders who governed the mineral-rich region over recent decades.

He won the hearts of many with welfare spending, social equality policies and subsidies which he says reduced poverty to just under 23 percent.

And unlike his allies in Brazil, Argentina and Peru, his side has managed to stay in office, winning re-election earlier this year.

Moreno "is willing to be less confrontational and to have a softer approach as president to the opposition and the media," said Farith Simon, an analyst at San Francisco University in Quito.

"He will not change political course but will change the style of government."

Moreno has said that "passion for life obliges us to deepen the changes we have achieved and defend our social progress."

- 'Economic hangover' -

Economists warn Moreno faces tougher conditions than those enjoyed by Correa, however.

Like other Latin American countries, Ecuador has suffered from falling prices for its oil and minerals.

"There is an economic hangover," said Simon.

The economy soared after Correa took over but fell back last year, shrinking 1.5 percent.

Ecuador's external debt has climbed to more than $25 billion -- over a quarter of its output.

For Moreno, "it will be very difficult to maintain" the level of social spending, said Simon Pachano, a political scientist at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in Quito.

- Time of Correa -

Correa's time in office has been marked by his abrasive personality. He vocally criticized his opponents and the media, which he branded as "corrupt" and "lying."

Ecuador had been dubbed ungovernable when he came to office in 2007, with seven different presidents over the preceding decade.

He launched vigorous reforms, boosted social spending, curbed oil firms' profits and suspended some debt payments that he considered illegitimate.

"We succeeded. I am handing over a country totally different from the one I received," he said recently.

- Reaching out -

Moreno's legs have been paralyzed since he was shot during a robbery in 1998. He led a task force on disability rights as vice president in Correa's government.

Moreno beat his conservative rival, ex-banker Guillermo Lasso, by 2.3 percent in April's runoff vote.

He has pledged to boost business through loans and try to spur consumption.

His cabinet, announced on Tuesday, includes business-friendly figures as well as social leaders.

He appointed former central bank adviser Carlos de la Torre to be his finance minister.

As oil minister, he chose Carlos Perez, a former executive of US oil firm Halliburton.

Moreno and Correa's Country Alliance party saw its majority in congress weakened in the legislative vote, however.

"The outlook is for economic turbulence plus a certain political weakening and internal cracks" for Moreno's side, said Pablo Ospina, an analyst at Simon Bolivar Andean University.

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