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Ecuador Voters Choosing President - 2002-11-24

In the presidential election in Ecuador, voters chose Sunday between a former coup leader who joined Indians in a revolt against the government nearly three years ago and a wealthy businessman. Some eight million voters went to the polls in the South American country.

In the month since first round voting, Colonel Lucio Gutierrez has led in opinion polls. But a survey taken on Saturday revealed that Ecuador's richest man, Alvaro Noboa, has narrowed the lead.

The candidates have been exchanging accusations that included Mr. Noboa's prediction that the former army colonel would assume dictatorial powers. Mr. Gutierrez rejects Mr. Noboa's comparisons of him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also a former coup leader. For his part, Mr. Gutierrez earlier charged that Mr. Noboa defrauded family members of their father's inheritance. But a London judged ruled in a case brought by two of Mr. Noboa's sisters that the billionaire businessman had not defrauded them.

Days before the election, Ecuador's focus on the mud-slinging presidential campaign shifted when an explosion at a munitions storehouse in Riobamba killed several people and injured dozens, as well as damaging buildings. A newspaper headline Saturday said more than a hundred children have not returned home after disappearing during the panic surrounding the blasts. A military spokesman says the calamity began when a grenade was dropped accidentally.

Both candidates have promised cheap housing and other aid for Ecuador's poor, who make up more than half of the population. The country's last two elected presidents, Jamil Mahuad and Abdala Bucaram did not serve out their entire terms.

Mr. Mahuad was removed in 2000 by the coup that Colonel Gutierrez helped stage, and Mr. Bucaram was voted out in early 1997 by Congress, which declared him mentally incompetent.