QUITO, Ecuador – A leftist nationalist who is friendly with Venezuela's anti-U.S. president held a commanding lead over a Bible-toting banana tycoon in Sunday's runoff presidential election in Ecuador, according to an unofficial quick count of votes.
A victory by Rafael Correa would strengthen South America's tilt to the left, with Ecuador joining like-minded governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and several other countries. But his opponent Alvaro Noboa refused to concede, saying he would wait for the official count to be completed.
The quick count, conducted by a citizens' election watchdog group, gave Correa nearly 57 percent of the vote, compared to 43 percent for Noboa. It was based on sample votes from more than 1,600 voting stations and had a margin of error of less than 1 percentage point, the group said.
Correa sounded confident of his victory at a news conference after the count was announced.
"We receive this very high honor that the Ecuadorean people have bestowed on us with profound serenity, with profound hope," he told reporters.
Two exit polls also gave the tall and charismatic Correa a wide lead over his opponent.
Official results were not expected until after 11 p.m. EST, and a winner may not be decided until Monday night or Tuesday morning.
The 43-year-old Correa, who is an outspoken admirer of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, secured a place in Sunday's runoff by pledging a "citizens' revolution" to radically reform the discredited political system. Ecuadoreans have driven the last three elected presidents from power and Correa appealed to voters as a fresh face in a field of established politicians.
In the first round, Correa called President Bush "dimwitted" and rattled investors by threatening to reduce payments on Ecuador's $16.1 billion foreign debt to free up money for social programs. He was favored to win the first round but came in second to Noboa in the field of 13.
Since he softened his radical rhetoric in the second round and began to make populist promises of his own, his support has been climbing.
Noboa, a 56-year-old billionaire who has touted his close relationships with the rich and powerful in the United States, ran an old-fashioned populist campaign, crisscrossing Ecuador and handing out computers, medicine and money.
Before voting earlier Sunday in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Noboa read a passage from the Bible in the midst of a mob of supporters pushing to touch him. He then fell to his knees, asking God for his support and saying all he wanted was "to serve, to serve, to serve" the poor.
"Like Christ, all I want is to serve ... so that the poor can have housing, health care, education, jobs," he said.
The winner will face the tough task of ruling this poor, politically unstable Andean nation which has had eight presidents since 1996, including three who were driven from office by street protests.
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 pledged to construct 100,000 low-cost homes and copied Noboa's promise to double to $36 a "poverty bonus" that 1.2 million poor Ecuadoreans receive each month. Ecuador is an oil-exporting country, but three-quarters of its 13.4 million inhabitants live in poverty.
"I'm voting for Correa because he's the lesser of two evils and because he represents a new option," said Georgina Cornejo, a 59-year-old housewife waiting to vote in a middle-class suburb on Quito's south side. "We're hoping he doesn't let us down."
In Guayaquil, Noboa's stronghold, Arnulfo Napoleon, a 50-year-old security guard voting at a school in a poor neighborhood said he was supporting Ecuador's wealthiest man, who has twice run for the presidency before.
"He's lost two elections. It's time he wins so that he can help the neediest as he has been doing up to now giving away so many things," he said.
Noboa pledged to build 300,000 low-cost homes a year, financing them through government bonds, and to create jobs by persuading his rich foreign friends to invest in Ecuador. He counts the Kennedys and Rockefellers among his friends.
He also proudly pointed out he is Ecuador's biggest investor, the owner of 114 companies. He said he would use his business skills to bring Ecuador's poor into the middle class.