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Leftist claims win in Ecuador election; rival cries foul

Supporters celebrate as presidential candidate Lenin Moreno of ruling party Alianza Pais and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa great from the government palace balcony, in Quito, Ecuador, Monday, April 3, 2017. Moreno appeared to have won Ecuador's presidential election but his conservative rival refused to recognize the results on Monday, calling on his supporters to take to the streets to guard against fraud. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Leftist candidate Lenin Moreno appeared to have won Ecuador’s presidential election but his conservative rival refused to recognize the results on Monday, leading supporters who took to the streets for a second straight night to protest what they said was fraud.

Sunday’s second-round runoff in the Andean nation of 16 million was seen as a barometer of whether the left, which had dominated South American politics for the past 15 years, could stop a string of right-wing victories across the region.

With more than 99 percent of polling places counted, Moreno had 51 percent of the vote while conservative banker Guillermo Lasso stood at just under 49 percent.

Even as calls congratulating Moreno from even right-wing governments in Latin America poured in Monday, Lasso vowed to keep up the fight against the installation of an “illegitimate” government.

“We’re on the correct side of history. We won’t cross our arms and stand by,” he said on Twitter. “We will exhaust all political and legal channels in Ecuador and abroad to respect the will of the people who called for a change.”

Key to Lasso’s challenge of the results in all of Ecuador’s 24 provinces was the results of three exit polls that showed him winning. One by pollster Cedatos, which accurately predicted the results of the first round, gave him a victory by six percentage points.

Part of the problem is the opposition’s distrust of the National Electoral Council, which it says has become an appendage of the executive in the way the electoral board in Venezuela has all but lost independence under socialist President Nicolas Maduro, a key ally of Correa.

On election night, thousands of outraged Lasso supporters shouting “fraud” crashed through metal barricades to almost reach the entrance of the electoral council’s headquarters in Quito. Scuffles also broke out in Guayaquil, where Lasso is from, before riot police before pushed back protesters with tear gas.

Thousands were back again Monday night after Lasso said he would demand a recount once the results had been certified. At a press conference, he said his campaign had detected a number of irregularities in voting acts contained in a database provided by electoral authorities.

But so far he’s failed to present any evidence of vote tampering except for a single voting act of 248 ballots from a rural area whose tally is says was reversed in favor of Moreno when sent to the National Electoral Council’s headquarters.

The Organization of American States said its mission of electoral observers that visited at random 480 voting centers nationwide found no discrepancies between the tallies and the official results and encouraged Lasso to issue complaints through institutional channels. It also expressed regret that both candidates were quick to declare themselves victors based on widely-differing exit polls that generated uncertainty in the minutes after polls closed.

Correa accused Lasso supporters of trying to deny the results and provoke violence. On Monday, he sent a flurry of tweets saying the Lasso campaign had hired Cedatos.

“By force they want to achieve what they can’t at the ballot box,” he said.

On Monday, he appeared alongside Moreno at changing of the guard ceremony at the presidential palace. Before a crowd of hundreds of supporters, the apparent President-elect sang “happy birthday” to Correa, who turns 54 later this week.

“I’m going to be the president of everyone but fundamentally those who are poorest,” said Moreno.

For weeks Ecuadoreans polarized by 10 years of Correa’s iron-fisted rule had been bracing for a contested vote.

With Ecuador’s economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low, analysts had been anticipating that Lasso would rally support from the 60 percent of voters who backed anti-Correa candidates in the first round and join the growing list of Latin American nations — Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela — shifting to the right in recent elections.

The majority of voters also said they were hungry for change amid ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes that Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa’s government and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador.

Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country’s 1999 banking crisis. Moreno, 64, also benefited from last-minute doubts that the pro-business Lasso if elected would gut social programs that have endeared poor voters to Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution.”

Outside the region, the election was being closely watched by supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living under asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London since 2012. Before the election, Lasso had said he would evict the Australian activist, who is wanted for extradition by Sweden, within 30 days of taking office. Moreno said he would allow him to stay.

On his Twitter account shortly after the results became known, Assange took a jab at Lasso’s pledge.

“I cordially invite Lasso to leave Ecuador within 30 days (with or without his tax haven millions),” he wrote.

Although Moreno during the campaign pledged to carry on Correa’s policies he offers a sharp contrast in style with his mentor. Where Correa is fiery and thin-skinned, Moreno has built a reputation for approachability and jest that helped him recover from a near-fatal shooting two decades ago that left him confined to a wheelchair. For years after the shooting incident he was a motivational speaker and author advocating humor as a way to confront adversity.

In a secret U.S. diplomatic cable from 2007, U.S. Ambassador Linda Jewell describes how Moreno, then Correa’s vice president, broke the ice in their first encounter with a joke about the government’s refusal to sign a free trade agreement.

“‘My first action as acting President will be to sign the FTA,’ he said with a laugh,” according to the cable published by WikiLeaks.

That ability to rise in the face of hard challenges will serve him well as president of a divided country. Economists say that the next president will have a difficult task slashing a deficit that ballooned in the final years of Correa’s government, as oil prices crashed and the dollarized Ecuadorean economy lost competitiveness compared to its neighbors.

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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