Ecuador is poised to join the tide of Latin American countries voting for left-wing leaders after Rafael Correa, an economist, took a resounding lead in exit polls over Alvaro Noboa, a billionaire.
Mr Correa, a former finance minister with an economics doctorate from the University of Illinois, has promised to renegotiate the country's foreign debt and focus spending on relieving intense poverty in the Andean nation.
"This is a clear message that the people want change," 43-year-old Mr Correa said after provisional results gave him two thirds of the vote.
Mr Noboa, Ecuador's wealthiest man with holdings ranging from bananas to the building sector, has rejected the results and said he might demand a recount. Full official results are expected later today.
A Correa victory will see Ecuador join Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Chile and Brazil in electing left-wing leaders in the past year. The scale of this popular rejection of the neo-liberal policies that dominated the region in the 1990s, enshrined in the Washington Consensus, has caused alarm in the US, which has seen its influence sharply curbed.
Mark Weisbrot, regional analyst from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, said the swing had come after 25 years of disastrous economic failure that has stymied growth and mired millions in poverty. "What you've seen in these elections is the people going over the heads of the political establishment because they need change," he said.
In a campaign following the style of others in the region, the Bible-thumping Mr Noboa portrayed his rival as a dangerous stooge of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
The other external figure to loom large in campaigning was George Bush, the US President. Mr Correa has used criticism of the intensely unpopular White House occupant, whom he referred to as a "dimwit", to rally voters to his campaign. He has said that in office he would shut down a US military base in the country and reject a free-trade pact with Washington.
Mr Noboa, who counts the Kennedys and Rockefellers among his friends, put his wealth at centre stage in a glitzy run that would have embarrassed Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. After doling out free computers and medicines at rallies he was reported to have handed one man a $500 bill. His campaign account was frozen after he exceeded by more than $250,000 the $687,068 spending limit.
"In addition to overspending, Noboa's first-round success was also the result of non-stop dirty campaigning," said Danielle Ryan from the Washington-based Centre for Hemisphere Affairs.
A win for the middle-class Mr Correa would represent a stunning rise to power after he made a relatively late entry into the contest, overtaking a number of more fancied opponents. But the real challenge for the incoming president will be to bring stability to a country which has seen an astounding seven presidents and two military juntas in the past decade.
The economist has promised a referendum on sweeping reforms to the constitution designed to curb the power of traditional parties but he has little support in Congress, where Mr Noboa has many allies.
That fight was foreshadowed by investment bank Goldman Sachs in a research note issued before the vote: "We anticipate that the gridlock and confrontation between the executive and legislature will reach new heights under a Correa administration."
Economic crises have been predicted every time the electorate has rejected a conservative candidate across the hemisphere. But according to Mr Weisbrot of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, the reality is that countries such as Bolivia have taken a bigger cut from oil and gas multinationals and spent a fraction of that income on social programmes.
"The fear tactic is no longer working and the old governments were following a model that has been proven not to work," he said.Reuse content