Ecuadorians participated in a presidential election on Sunday that was overshadowed by the assassination of a prominent candidate, highlighting the violence plaguing a nation once known for its tranquility but now entangled in the global drug trade. Voting began at 7:00 am local time (1200 GMT) and continued until 5:00 pm. The election aimed to select a successor to Guillermo Lasso, who called for a snap election to prevent an impeachment trial merely two years after his initial election.

To ensure the security of the vote, soldiers were deployed across the small South American nation due to the tense campaign atmosphere. Throughout the campaign, the eight presidential candidates were seen campaigning in bulletproof vests.

Ecuador has recently become a battleground for foreign drug cartels seeking to export cocaine, leading to a violent conflict between local gangs. In the lead-up to the election, several political figures were assassinated, with the murder of prominent presidential contender Fernando Villavicencio just 11 days before the election underscoring the challenges faced by the country.

Political scientist Anamaria Correa Crespo remarked, “These are highly unusual elections, occurring within a situation of turmoil that Ecuador is undergoing… due to the prevailing violence, which manifested itself more intensely and horrifically with Villavicencio’s murder.”

In 2022, Ecuador recorded a murder rate of 26 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, surpassing the rates in countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil.

Before the assassination of Villavicencio, Luisa Gonzalez, a 45-year-old lawyer from the leftist party of former president Rafael Correa, led the polls. However, experts suggest that the murder might have shifted the dynamics of the race.

Villavicencio, who was polling second before his assassination, was replaced by another journalist, Christian Zurita. In the hours leading up to the election, Zurita reported receiving death threats on social media. He expressed his determination to continue despite the threats, though security measures were being heightened.

Analysts have noted that one candidate who experienced a surge in popularity is 40-year-old right-wing businessman Jan Topic. Nicknamed “Rambo,” Topic, a former paratrooper and sniper in the French Foreign Legion, pledged to eradicate criminal gangs and construct additional prisons, drawing parallels to El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele.

Other prominent candidates include right-wing former vice-president Otto Sonnenholzner and leftist Indigenous attorney Yaku Perez.

In addition to the election, Ecuador held two significant referendums on Sunday. One referendum asked voters whether oil drilling in the Amazon should continue, while the other pertained to banning mining activities in the Choco Andino forest.

For a first-round victory, a candidate must secure 40 percent of the votes or maintain a lead of 10 percentage points over their closest rival. A potential runoff is scheduled for October 15.

The new president will assume office on October 26 and serve the remainder of Lasso’s term, which spans a year and a half. The election also included the selection of parliament members.

Preliminary election results are anticipated on the same night, with the final tally projected to be available within 10 days.

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