One candidate seeking to become Ecuador’s president is Daniel Noboa, a center-right scion of a banana empire who was lifted to a surprising second-place finish in a runoff in August by an electorate hungry for change in a country suffering from violence and an ailing economy.
Mr. Noboa is facing Luisa González, a leftist establishment candidate who, in trying to become the first woman elected the country’s president, is promising voters a return to a period when violence was low and the price of oil, a key industry, was high.
At stake in Sunday’s election is the future of this Latin American nation of more than 17 million, a once tranquil haven that has been upended by international criminal groups that have turned Ecuador into a key player in the global drug trade.
Working with local gangs, the global cartels have unleashed a surge of violence that has sent tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border, part of a migration wave that has overwhelmed the Biden administration.
Like much of the rest of Latin America, Ecuador was dealt a major financial blow by the coronavirus pandemic and many workers struggle to make enough money provide for their families.
Here’s what you need to know about the vote.
What makes this election different from others?
The outgoing president, Guillermo Lasso, called for early elections in May as he faced impeachment proceedings against him stemming from accusations of embezzlement. Mr. Lasso had also grown increasingly unpopular with voters angry over the government’s inability to address the spiraling violence.
The assassination of a presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, as he left a campaign event in August was a traumatic jolt for a nation that heads to the polls during what has been perhaps the most violent electoral season in its history.
Beside Mr. Villavicencio — who was outspoken about what he claimed were links between organized crime and the government — five other politicians have been killed this year. Last week, seven men accused of killing Mr. Villavicencio were found dead in prison.
Whoever wins will hold the presidency for only about a year and a half. Mr. Noboa has had a consistent lead in multiple polls since August, though it has narrowed slightly in recent days and some surveys show him neck and neck with Ms. González.
What is at stake in this election?
Ecuador was once a peaceful nation compared with its neighbors, particularly Colombia, which for decades was torn by violence among armed guerrilla units, paramilitary groups and drug cartels.
That all changed in recent years as Colombia forged a peace deal with the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group, and Ecuador became dominated by an increasingly powerful narco-trafficking industry that includes Mexican cartels and Albanian gangs.
Through its ports on the Pacific Coast, Ecuador has become a major transshipment point for cocaine that is smuggled to Europe. International groups have joined forces with prison-based gangs in a brutal competition for the lucrative drug industry.
News reports regularly feature beheadings, car bombings, police assassinations, young men hanging from bridges and children gunned down outside their homes or schools.
Who is Luisa González?
Ms. González, 45, is the handpicked candidate of former President Rafael Correa, who led the country from 2007 to 2017. She held several positions in his government before being elected to congress in 2021, a position she held until the legislature was dissolved by Mr. Lasso in May.
Her campaign has sought to appeal to voter nostalgia for the low homicide rates and commodities boom that lifted millions out of poverty during Mr. Correa’s administration. Ms. González’s campaign slogan in the first round was “we already did it and we will do it again.”
But Ms. González’s close association with the former president also carries risks. Mr. Correa’s authoritarian style and accusations of corruption deeply divided the country. He is living in exile in Belgium, fleeing a prison sentence for campaign finance violations, and many Ecuadoreans fear that a González presidency would pave the way for him to return and run for office again.
Ms. González has pledged to tap central bank reserves to stimulate the economy and increase financing for the public health care system and public universities.
“We know she is with the people, not with the rich, and that is why she is going to improve things,” said Oswaldo Proaño, 40, a street vendor in Quito, the capital, who spoke amid shouts and whistles at a recent campaign rally for Ms. González.
“With Luisa we will have security, as we had in the time of Rafael Correa,” said Luisa María Manteca, 65, who works at a cosmetics distributor in Quito. “With him, the country ran smoothly and we have to continue on that path.”
The possibility that Ms. González could become the first woman to win Ecuador’s presidency also appeals to many voters.
“She is a very humble person,’’ said Debora Espinosa, 19, a university student. “As a woman she understands us.”
Who is Daniel Noboa?
Mr. Noboa, 35, comes from one of the richest families in Latin America, known to most Ecuadoreans for its banana empire, which features one of the world’s best known fruit brands, Bonita bananas.
But the Noboa family’s vast holdings are varied and include fertilizers, plastics, cardboard and the country’s largest container storage facility.
Mr. Noboa’s father ran unsuccessfully for president five times, though the younger Noboa’s political career goes back only to 2021, when he was elected to Ecuador’s Congress.
He has positioned himself as “the employment president,” even including a work application form on his website, and has pledged to attract international investment and trade and cut taxes.
But like his father, Mr. Noboa has also drawn criticism from analysts who fear he could use the presidency to advance the family’s sprawling business empire.
At a recent campaign event, hundreds of university students lined up in the coastal city of Guayaquil, the country’s most populous city and an epicenter of the violence, waiting for more than an hour to see Mr. Noboa.
Taking off his bullet-resistant vest, he slowly and calmly answered the students’ questions, repeating his talking points about making Ecuador an attractive market for international banking. He was met with applause, cheers and teenagers running to snap selfies with him.
“I have been watching his interviews and I like his proposals on issues such as dollarization, education and work,” said Dereck Delgado, 17, an electrical engineering student, who plans to vote for Mr. Noboa. (The voting age in Ecuador is 16 and votingis mandatory for those 18 and older).
Many voters are also drawn to him because he represents an alternative to Mr. Correa’s party. Valeria Vásquez, 33, who manages a local beauty product company in Guayaquil, said she liked that Mr. Noboa is “not a socialist.”
Another Noboa supporter, Natasha Villegas, 19, a university student in Guayaquil, said she believed it was “time to give the opportunity to a young person.’’
What are the candidates saying about security?
Mr. Noboa and Ms. González have vowed to rein in the violence, though neither has made security a central part of their campaigns.
Both candidates have talked about providing more money for the police and deploying the military to secure ports used to smuggle drugs out of the country and prisons, which are controlled by violent gangs.
Ms. González has pointed to the arrests of several leaders of criminal gangs when she served in the Correa administration as evidence of her intention to apply a firm hand.
Mr. Noboa has proposed the use of technology, like drones and satellite tracking systems, to stem drug trafficking, and has suggested building prison boats to isolate the most violent inmates.
But analysts say the two candidates have not done enough to prioritize combating the crime that has destabilized Ecuador and turned it into one of Latin America’s most violent countries.
Thalíe Ponce contributed reporting from Guayaquil; Emilia Paz y Miño and José María León Cabrera contributed from Quito.