Madman looks set to win over Ecuador voters

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"Vote for the madman. Vote for the clown." Not your average presidential campaign slogan. But then, Abdala Bucaram is not your average candidate.

Mr Bucaram, a 44-year-old former Olympic hurdler who could become President of Ecuador in elections tomorrow, has no qualms about using his nicknames. He prefers "el loco", the madman, because, he says, "crazy people speak from the heart and see with their soul".

His opponents have a stronger nickname for him, "Hitler", but that's really only because of his moustache.

Mr Bucaram, a populist heading his own party, was running slightly ahead of Jaime Nebot, 49, a conservative lawyer, on the eve of tomorrow's two- man run-off. Mr Nebot, of the Social Christian Party, beat Mr Bucaram by 29 per cent to 27 per cent in the original ballot on 19 May, necessitating another round of voting. The conservative incumbent, Sixto Duran-Ballen, is constitutionally barred from running again.

"I am the madman who is going to be your President," Mr Bucaram - like his opponent, of Lebanese extraction - told supporters in a rap-like pre- election speech backed by a rock band. "Power to the poor."

Many Ecuadoreans consider tomorrow's decision as "a choice between Aids and cholera". Mr Nebot, dubbed "the Anti-Christ" by his opponent, is perhaps best known for trying to whip a fellow congressman and threatening to urinate on him.

"Bucaram reached this run-off with the votes of pimps, prostitutes and potheads," Mr Nebot told his supporters.

The currency, the sucre, has slipped in recent days with the prospect that Mr Bucaram, who ran in the hurdles for Ecuador at the 1972 Munich Olympics, might soon be running the country. With strong support in the shanty towns around Guayaquil, he has pledged to reverse free-market economic reforms pushed through by Mr Duran-Ballen.

"Maids should have their salary tripled. Society matrons with their perfumed armpits should know what it's like to wash their own knickers," he said in a campaign speech. He was elected mayor of Guayaquil in 1984 after telling slum-dwellers he understood perfectly "the urge ... scrape the paintwork of every Mercedes in sight". His popularity slipped when he banned mini-skirts in the city.

Mr Bucaram has spent half the last 10 years in exile, once after criticising the Ecuadorean army for being "good for nothing but marching in parades" and once after allegations of embezzlement while mayor.