updated 10/15/2006 10:40:55 PM ET 2006-10-16T02:40:55

A banana tycoon who waged an old-fashioned populist campaign and a leftist admirer of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez will head to a runoff vote after neither scored an outright victory in Sunday’s tight presidential election, partial results showed.

With nearly a third of the ballots counted, Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s wealthiest man, had 25.7 percent of the vote compared to 23.7 percent for Rafael Correa, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said.

A Nov. 26 runoff had been expected as none of the 13 candidates in the field appeared likely to win outright in recent polls. The winner needed 50 percent, or at least 40 percent of the valid vote and a 10-point lead over the rest of the field to avoid a runoff.

Correa, 43, a tall and charismatic firebrand, had surged from third to first in the polls by pledging a “citizens’ revolution” against the discredited political system. That had resonated with Ecuadoreans, who forced the last three elected presidents from power.

A victory by him would further push Latin America to the left, with Ecuador joining left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

Standing in Correa’s way, however, is Noboa, 55, who proudly points out he is Ecuador’s biggest investor, the owner of 110 companies. He says he will use his business skills to bring Ecuador’s poor into the middle class.

Making his third run for the presidency, Noboa had moved up quickly in the polls in recent days to a close second behind Correa.

‘Two clearly defined options’
“In the second round there are two clearly defined options,” Noboa said. “The people will have to choose between Rafael Correa’s position, a communist, dictatorial position like that of Cuba, where people earn $12 a month, and my position, which is that of Spain, Chile, the United States, Italy, where there is liberty and democracy.”

Correa urged his followers to keep a close watch on the official vote count, warning if he doesn’t win, “it means fraud and grave irregularities.”

Earlier Sunday, Correa had demanded that the Organization of American States remove the head of its election observation team, accusing him of failing to recognize irregularities in the vote. The chief observer, former Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa, denied he was biased and said Ecuador was meeting international standards for a clean election.

Noboa called Correa a bad loser in response to his allegations. “The people have given a whipping to this boy and like a spoiled brat he’s trying to see how he gets out of this,” he said.

Both U.S. and Venezuelan officials — apparently wary of tilting the race with ill-advised comments, as both have done in recent Latin American elections — have been studiously silent about the rise of Correa, who last month called President Bush “tremendously dimwitted.”

Despite that silence, Correa on Sunday also accused the U.S. of meddling in the election.

While providing no specific examples, Correa told the Venezuelan-based Telesur TV network that Washington knows “that we are not going to be anyone’s employee and that we will make our sovereignty respected.”

He reiterated that he opposed a free-trade pact with the U.S. and would not renew in 2009 an agreement that allows the U.S. to use an Ecuadorean military base for drug surveillance flights.

Correa has also said he will renegotiate contracts with oil companies to secure more profits for his country’s coffers. Although a relatively small producer, Ecuador’s 535,000 barrels a day account for 43 percent of the national budget.

Many Ecuadoreans, meanwhile, have been attracted to Noboa’s promises to provide cheap housing and create a million jobs in this small Andean nation of 13.4 million people, 76 percent of whom are poor, according to UNICEF.

Driving up to a polling station in a red Mercedes Benz on Sunday, Noboa thanked Ecuador’s poor for their support, saying: “I will keep my promises to you on housing, jobs and health.”

Standing in line to vote in a school patio in Quito’s colonial center, Julio Lopez, a 55-year-old tailor, said he planned to cast his ballot for Correa.

“If he governs well, perfect. But if he doesn’t, we’ll use the same belt he used for his campaign to run him out of office,” he said. During the race Correa brandished a belt and promised to “give the lash” to the country’s corrupt politicians.

But Carmen Ibarra, a 42-year-old housewife, said her vote was for Noboa because “he knows a lot about business and that will help a lot in government.”

Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, is new to politics. He served just 106 days last year as finance minister under interim President Alfredo Palacio, who replaced Lucio Gutierrez in the midst of street protests in April 2005.

‘The angry vote’
Not one to mince words, Correa calls the Ecuadorean Congress a “sewer” and has vowed to rally street protests if lawmakers do not agree to a new constitution that trims the power of the parties and strengthens the presidency.

“Correa is exploiting the angry vote. There are many people angry” with the system, said Luis Eladio Proano, a political analyst. “That anger has found a man who says he is going to destroy everything.”

But populism runs deep in Ecuadorean politics, and Noboa has tapped into the tradition to power his campaign.

With a Bible under his arm and frequent references to God in his speeches, Noboa has crisscrossed Ecuador, handing out computers, medicine and money.

“Ecuadoreans want to eat. They don’t want these political speeches of blah-blah-blah,” Noboa said in a recent candidates’ debate. “They want jobs, housing, they want health coverage, they want education. That’s why the other candidates don’t have the popular support I do.”

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