By Alexandra Valencia and Julia Symmes Cobb
QUITO (Reuters) -Luisa Gonzalez, a protege of leftist former president Rafael Correa, was leading the early vote count in Ecuador’s presidential race on Sunday, after a campaign darkened by bloodshed.
Gonzalez was tallying just under 33% support, with nearly 20% of ballot boxes counted, at about 7:40 pm local time, according to figures from the National Electoral Council.
Former lawmaker Daniel Noboa was coming in at a surprise second-place with 24.4% of the vote, while anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who was fatally shot as he left a polling place earlier this month was tallying 16.3%.
Villavicencio has been replaced by fellow investigative journalist Christian Zurita, but appeared on the ballot because they were printed before his murder.
The eight candidates in the presidential race – which is likely to go to a second round – have pledged to fight sharp increases in crime, which the current government blames on drug gangs, and improve the struggling economy, whose woes have caused an uptick in unemployment and migration.
Security took center stage in the contest after Villavicencio’s killing. Other candidates have reported attacks against them, although in several cases police have said that the violence was not directed at the hopefuls themselves.
Gonzalez supporters gathering at a celebration in southern Quito, where she was later expected to speak, said they wanted a return of Correa’s social programs and better work opportunities.
“I feel that as a woman she will fight for the people,” said Fany Tarqui, 52, who brought her two daughters and their dog to the rally. “I want peace and sources of work.”
“Work is scarce for everyone, that’s why migration has gone so high,” said retired teacher Wilson Lopez, 64.
Six suspects, all Colombians who police say belong to criminal gangs, were charged with Villavicencio’s murder and are being held in custody. Another suspect died from wounds sustained in a shootout with authorities.
A webpage set up for some Ecuadoreans living abroad to cast their ballots suffered cyber attacks, the head of the council said, but the integrity of the vote was not affected by the issue.
The cyber attacks on the webpage for voters abroad were launched from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine, Indonesia and China, said Diana Atamaint, the president of electoral council.
“The online platform suffered cyber attacks that affected the fluidity of access to voting. We clarify and emphasize that the recorded votes have not been violated,” Atamaint said.
Multiple candidates had denounced problems with the webpage.
More than 82% of those who are required to vote did so, Atamaint added. Voting is mandatory for those between 18 and 65.
Gonzalez, who had led polls heading into the election, has promised to free up $2.5 billion from international reserves to bolster Ecuador’s economy.
She also promised to bring back social programs implemented by Correa – who has since been convicted of corruption – during his decade in power.
Noboa, the 35-year-old son of prominent banana businessman and former presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa, seemingly gained support after performing well in the only televised debate of the campaign.
A lawmaker until current President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the national assembly and called early elections, Noboa has focused his campaign on job creation, tax incentives for new businesses and jail sentences for serious tax evasion.
Villavicencio’s replacement Zurita told Reuters that if elected he would better equip the police and enshrine intelligence protocols to fight crime, using international loans to shore up social programs.
Also on Sunday’s ballot were two environmental referendums – both expected to pass – that could block mining in a forest near Quito and development of an oil block in the Amazon.
Voters also were electing 137 members of the national assembly.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Julia Symmes Cobb in Quito; Additional reporting by Yuyr Garcia in Guayaquil; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin; Editing by William Mallard, Mark Porter, Paul Simao and Michael Perry)
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