QUITO, Ecuador, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Oil-rich Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is poised for a comfortable win in a Feb. 17 presidential election amid a weak challenge from a divided opposition.
Correa accused the opposition of resorting to violence after two people died in a stabbing at an election rally in Quininde.
Correa, 49, is variously defined by political analysts as a left-wing populist firebrand or a progressive leader but he has the highest approval ratings for a head of state in Latin America. Correa was elected president in 2006 and took office in January 2007. This will be his third term if elected.
His crackdown on Ecuador's news media hurt his reputation but loyalists accuse the affected media of orchestrating vilification of the president under the influence of vested interests. Analysts say the truth may lie somewhere in between.
Correa earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate, at universities in Ecuador, Belgium and the United States. His training as an economist is seen behind his successful poverty reduction programs in a country that was despoiled for decades of its oil earnings by successive dictatorial regimes.
Correa, too, has faced charges of financial malpractices and of taking money from fellow firebrand Hugo Chavez, the ailing president of oil-rich Venezuela. He has countered those allegations and remains popular across a cross-section of Ecuador's 15 million citizens, including a 6.1 percent European elite.
Correa's personal charisma and his continuing emphasis on improving the country's infrastructure have also disarmed critics. Like Venezuela, Ecuador is an OPEC oil exporter but on a smaller scale.
Two recent opinion polls gave Correa comfortable leads in the run-up to the polls, despite much publicized campaigns by opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso focused on lower taxes. Analysts said former banker Lasso's electoral offer left the country's working class majority unimpressed though he found empathy with a middle class minority.
If Lasso's supporters vote as the polls suggest he may garner no more than 9 percent of the vote, against predictions of up to 60 percent or more for Correa.
The fragmented opposition's failure to mount a credible campaign and difficulties in turning the populace away from Correa's tangible achievements could seal his rivals' fate.
Opinion against the opposition has been accentuated by the presence of no less than seven presidential candidates arrayed against Correa but none convincing enough in their challenge to the incumbent.
Analysts said the president could be effectively challenged on at least two key counts: the government's poor record tackling crime and its obstructionist and hostile stance toward foreign investors.
A 2008 sovereign debt default rankles and oil companies haven't forgiven Correa for tearing up oil contracts to draw more revenue for the state.
In December 2008, he declared Ecuador's national debt illegitimate, arguing it was mostly contracted by corrupt and despotic regimes that preceded his presidency.
Ecuador's ties with the United State are tense in a diplomatic stand-off since Correa expelled two U.S. diplomats in 2009 in a dispute on joint anti-narcotics operations, suspended amid the row. Both sides have said they want to improve bilateral ties.