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Ecuador presidential hopefuls close campaign clouded by violence


By Alexandra Valencia

QUITO (Reuters) – Candidates vying to be Ecuador’s next president held closing campaign events on Thursday, ahead of voting over the weekend in a contest clouded by the murder of anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

More than 13 million Ecuadoreans are eligible to head to polls on Sunday to elect a replacement for conservative President Guillermo Lasso, who called early elections to halt an impeachment process against him.

Candidates have pledged to fight crime and improve the struggling economy, amid sharply rising violence blamed on drug traffickers and unemployment woes, which has increased migration.

Ecuador’s recent insecurity was on tragic display last week, when Villavicencio, a former investigative journalist and lawmaker, was gunned down while leaving a campaign event.

“The new government must be more decided and courageous,” said Milton Oleas, a 67-year-old who works in the construction industry, who said he still had not decided who to vote for. “The president cannot doubt what they do and must be valiant in taking decisions.”

Candidates, who have beefed up protections and kept their schedules limited since the murder, were holding rallies and other events around the country.

Luisa Gonzalez, a protege of former President Rafael Correa, led polling before Villavicencio’s murder with about 30% of voting intention.

She held a closing event in largest city Guayaquil on Wednesday and had a large event planned in capital Quito on Thursday.

Gonzalez has promised to use $2.5 billion from international reserves to shore up the struggling economy if elected and bring back social programs implemented by Correa – who has since been convicted of corruption – during his decade in power.

“A firm hand against crime, against violence and against crime gangs, but a hand of solidarity and love for our people,” Gonzalez said at the Wednesday rally, in which Correa participated remotely from Mexico. “We will take control of the country. It is the time to lift up the homeland with dignity.”

A candidate would need to get 50% of the vote, or 40% if they are 10 points ahead of their nearest rival, to win a first round. Otherwise a second round will take place on Oct. 15.

Environmentalist Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez, who has been in the top five of the eight candidates in recent polls, pledged a government of the people during a morning rally in Quito.

“The people are here now building popular power; the people are building from the bottom up participative and ecological democracy,” Perez said. “We are committing to have zero tolerance for corruption, for organized crime, for all structural violence.”

Businessmen Otto Sonnenholzner and Jan Topic have rallies planned in Guayaquil, where violence has been acute, and have both promised economic reactivation and security.

Villavicencio’s Construye party was set to hold a memorial event for him in Quito.

His replacement, Christian Zurita, whose candidacy was officially approved by the electoral council late on Wednesday, has promised to better equip the police and enshrine intelligence protocols to fight crime, using international loans to shore up social programs.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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