After months of hesitation, Ecuador President Rafael Correa officially announced his re-election bid on Saturday for a February vote likely to give him another four-year term. The delay in committing to run again had fueled speculation, even within his own family, that he would not seek reelection.
Experts are almost unanimous in predicting an easy victory for the president who has led and ambitious government spending program on roads, hospitals and schools has made the 49-year-old Belgium and U.S.-educated economist extremely popular with Ecuador’s poor majority.
The opposition is divided and lacks a charismatic leader.
Victory in the February 17 vote would give the Correa a mandate for rolling out more reforms to increase state revenues from the oil and mining sectors. But dependency on oil exports in OPEC's smallest member is his Achilles heel, and he may be forced to reduce state spending should oil prices fall.
"We've done a lot but there's a lot more to be done, to turn this bourgeois state into a truly popular state that would serve everyone, especially the poor … that's why we accept this nomination," Correa said in front of thousands of supporters after the ruling Alianza Pais coalition endorsed his candidacy at a raucous meeting in a Quito football stadium.
"We've got a president, we've got Rafael," chanted his supporters, many of whom were wearing neon-green shirts, the color of the party.
In power since 2007 and a member of a Latin American leftist bloc led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Correa has given the state a key role in a small economy very dependent on oil and bananas.
Casting his movement as a "Citizens' Revolution," Correa has viciously battled political adversaries whom he disparages as an and “old guard” elite that monopolized power for decades.
Critics say Correa has grabbed too much power and clamped down on media freedom. They accuse him of scaring off foreign investors with a 2008 debt default, and failing to diversify the economy from its dependence on oil exports.
Supporters, on the other hand, point to the rapid improvement of infrastructure, the drop in poverty and illiteracy, as proof that his policies have been good for the country.
Correa chose strategic sectors minister Jorge Glass as his running mate, because vice president Lenin Moreno, who is in a wheelchair, declined to run again for health reasons.
Correa infuriated Washington this year by granting asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who published hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables. Assange, who is wanted for questioning over sexual assault and rape allegations in Sweden, has been in Ecuador's embassy in London since June.
High oil prices have fueled economic growth since 2010, and Correa has brought stability to the politically volatile nation. Three presidents were forced to resign due to widespread protests during the decade before he took office.
A survey by pollster Cedatos shows Correa winning 55 percent of votes, 32 percentage points more than his closest rival, Guillermo Lasso, a banker from the coastal city Guayaquil.
Lasso, who is running on a platform of lower taxes and incentives to private investors to boost job creation, will have difficulty in denting Correa's support among the poor. "Lasso is seriously stigmatized because he's a banker, that's the main thing he'll have to struggle with," said Paulina Recalde, head of local pollster Perfiles de Opinion. Ecuadoreans blame banks for a 1999 financial crisis that forced Ecuador to adopt the dollar as its currency the following year and meant thousands of account holders lost their savings.
But Lasso has plenty of funds to finance a flashy campaign, and his marketing team has put him in the media spotlight. "Lasso has credibility, inspires sympathy and has a low rejection rate," Recalde said.
Other candidates are former president Lucio Gutierrez; Alberto Acosta, a former Correa ally; and Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate who will run for the presidency for the fifth time.