QUITO, Ecuador – A Bible-toting banana magnate who favors close ties with the U.S. defied expectations by narrowly outpolling an admirer of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the first round of Ecuador's presidential election.
With slightly more than 70 percent of ballots counted, Noboa received 26.7 percent of the vote, compared with 22.5 percent for Correa, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said. The winner needed 50 percent, or at least 40 percent and a 10-point lead over the rest of the field, to avoid a runoff.
Although a runoff had been expected, the result was unexpected because Correa had led recent polls.
E-Vote, the Brazilian company contracted by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to provide a quick count, stopped operations after reaching 70.2 percent of the vote in the pre-dawn hours Monday, apparently due to problems with its computer program.
No representative of the company was available to comment, but Patricio Torres, a member of the tribunal, told The Associated Press that the company "has not met expectations." He said he didn't know what had gone wrong, but the contract had called for E-Vote to provide a quick count of 100 percent of the ballots by midnight Sunday.
Torres said the official count by the tribunal must be completed in 10 days by law.
Correa, whose campaign led investors to dump Ecuadorean bonds over fears the country would follow Latin America's tilt to the left, challenged Noboa's surprising ballot surge.
A tall and charismatic firebrand, Correa urged his followers to keep a close watch on the official vote count, warning that if he doesn't win, "it means fraud and grave irregularities."
"We have to win by such a wide margin in the second round ... that they can't deny the citizens victory," said Correa, 43. He insisted his vote total was at least 10 percentage points higher.
Noboa, 55, countered that Correa was acting like a "spoiled brat" because voters had given him "a whipping." The businessman, making his third run for the presidency, had moved up quickly in the polls in recent days.
"In the second round there are two clearly defined options," Noboa said. "The people will have to choose between Rafael Correa's position, a communist, dictatorial position like that of Cuba, where people earn $12 a month, and my position, which is that of Spain, Chile, the United States, Italy, where there is liberty and democracy."
Earlier Sunday, Correa had demanded that the Organization of American States remove the head of its election observation team, accusing him of failing to recognize irregularities. The chief observer, former Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa, denied he was biased and said Ecuador was meeting international standards for a clean election.
Correa also had accused the U.S. of meddling in the election. While providing no specific examples, he told the Venezuelan-based Telesur TV network that Washington knows "that we are not going to be anyone's employee and that we will make our sovereignty respected."
U.S. and Venezuelan officials — apparently wary of tilting the race with ill-advised comments, as both have done in recent Latin American elections — have been studiously silent about the rise of Correa, who last month called President Bush "tremendously dimwitted."
Correa had surged toward the end of the campaign by pledging to mount a "citizens' revolution" against the discredited political system. That resonated with Ecuadoreans, who forced the last three elected presidents from power.
A victory by him would further push Latin America to the left, with Ecuador joining left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, is new to politics. He served just 106 days last year as finance minister under interim President Alfredo Palacio, who replaced Lucio Gutierrez in the midst of street protests in April 2005.
Correa has said he opposes a free-trade pact with the U.S. and would not renew in 2009 an agreement that allows the U.S. to use an Ecuadorean military base for drug surveillance flights.
He also vowed to renegotiate contracts with oil companies to secure more profits for his country. Although a relatively small producer, Ecuador's 535,000 barrels a day account for 43 percent of the national budget.
Noboa, who owns 110 companies and proudly points out he is Ecuador's biggest investor, has said he will use his business skills to bring Ecuador's poor into the middle class. Many Ecuadoreans have been attracted to his promises to provide cheap housing and create a million jobs in this small Andean nation of 13.4 million people, 76 percent of whom are poor, according to UNICEF.
With a Bible under his arm and frequent references to God in his speeches, Noboa had crisscrossed Ecuador, handing out computers, medicine and money.
Standing in line to vote in a school patio in Quito's colonial center, Julio Lopez, a 55-year-old tailor, said he planned to cast his ballot for Correa.
"If he governs well, perfect. But if he doesn't, we'll use the same belt he used for his campaign to run him out of office," he said. During the race Correa brandished a belt and promised to "give the lash" to the country's corrupt politicians.
But Carmen Ibarra, a 42-year-old homemaker, said her vote was for Noboa because "he knows a lot about business and that will help a lot in government."