QUITO, Ecuador --The hand-picked candidate of socialist President Rafael Correa headed to victory in the opening round of Ecuador's presidential election, although authorities said it may take a few more days to know whether he's avoided a runoff.
With more than 88 percent of polling stations reporting early morning Monday, ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno had slightly over 39 percent of the votes, compared to 28 percent for former banker Guillermo Lasso, the closest contender among seven opposition candidates.
To avoid an April 2 runoff, and continue a decade-long streak of leftist rule in Ecuador at a time that the rest of South America has tilted to the right, Moreno needed to win a majority of the total vote, or to have a 40 percent share while holding a 10-point lead over his nearest rival.
While Ecuadoreans are angry over an economic downturn and corruption scandals, the opposition split its votes among candidates and the ruling Country Alliance remains popular with many poor voters thanks to social welfare programs.
On Monday a crowd that had held an overnight vigil outside the National Electoral Council had swelled to a few thousand.
"We're going to stay here until the people's will is respected," said Andres Paez, Lasso's running mate, who was among those joining the protest. "If the results are clean we'll recognize them. But if they're not we'll declare ourselves in civil disobedience."
Moreno said he was confident he would cross the required threshold as results came in from consulates overseas and western Manabi province - where the government spent heavily to rebuild from last year's 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
"I have faith we'll reach 40 percent," he said before breaking into song.
Given the tight race, electoral authorities decided against announcing a quick count of results and appealed for patience as official results came in. A count of statistically representative tally sheets nationwide by a respected private group predicted Moreno would finish on top with 38.8 percent to 28 percent for Lasso, with a 1 point margin of error.
The opposition candidate showed no sign of throwing in the towel even as Moreno's lead widened overnight with more than 1 million ballots still left to count.
"We'll see other again April 2 at the ballot box and fight for the Ecuadorean people's support," a sleepless Lasso said a press conference Monday.
The outcome was being watched closely in Latin America, where conservative leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Peru have assumed power in the past 18 months after the end of a commodities boom that boosted leftists like Correa.
Outside the region, much of the interest in the election focused on what the outcome might mean for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012. Moreno has indicated he would allow Assange to remain while Lasso vowed to evict the Australian activist within 30 days of taking office.
The contest put Correa's legacy on the line as well. The self-declared 21st century socialist who took office in 2007 ushered in a period of stability after a severe economic crisis that saw three presidents toppled in protests and the adoption of the U.S. dollar to control rampant inflation. While Correa has been praised for reducing inequality and overhauling Ecuador's infrastructure, opinion polls said a majority of Ecuadoreans favor change.
Formerly flush government budgets have been slashed and thousands of people at state-run companies laid off as oil revenues in the OPEC nation declined. The International Monetary Fund expects Ecuador's economy to shrink 2.7 percent this year, and analysts predict the new president will have to seek a bailout from the Washington-based IMF to address financial problems made worse by last year's earthquake.
In the final weeks before the election, corruption allegations involving Moreno's running mate, current Vice President Jorge Glas, dominated airwaves. A leaked video widely shared on social media shows a disgraced former Cabinet minister undergoing a lie detector test and accusing Glas of taking some of the $12 million in bribes paid to state-run PetroEcuador for construction of a refinery.
Glas denied any wrongdoing.