6 Min Read
* Heavy state spending makes incumbent popular among poor
* Fractured opposition fielding seven candidates
* Correa win would boost Latin American leftist bloc
By Brian Ellsworth
QUITO, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Ecuadoreans vote for president on Sunday in a ballot expected to hand incumbent Rafael Correa a new term to advance his socialist agenda of heavy government spending and expansion of state power that critics slam as creeping authoritarianism.
Generous state outlays to expand access to healthcare, pave decrepit roads and build new schools have given the combative economist a strong base among the South American nation's poor.
Victory for Correa would cheer the leftist ALBA bloc of Latin American and Caribbean nations at a time when the group's indisputable leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is struggling to recover from cancer.
Polls show Correa leading his closest rival by more than 35 percentage points.
Critics say Correa he is a despot who tolerates no dissent and is intent on amassing power. But the opposition's inability to unite behind a single candidate - seven opposition candidates are running - has helped give Correa a comfortable lead.
Former banker Guillermo Lasso is Correa's nearest rival in the polls, but surveys show him commanding only between 9 and 15 percent of the vote.
The Ecuadorean leader has built up an image of nationalist man-of-the-people through theatrical confrontation with oil companies and Wall Street investors.
The only Ecuadorean president in the past 20 years to complete a full term in office, he is admired for bringing political stability to a nation where leaders had been frequently toppled by violent street protests or military coups.
"We're done with the opportunists, they would take power and snatch up all the money and forget about their promises," Jorge Pazmino, 65, who upholsters vehicles, said on Thursday at Correa's final campaign rally in a working-class southern Quito neighborhood.
"Now we finally have a president who is getting things done. There's just nobody else to vote for," Pazmino added.
Pazmino said it was easier to get medical attention thanks to an overhaul of the social security system and credits the president with forcing employers to respect labor laws.
The Perfiles de Opinion polling firm recently showed Correa with 62 percent support. To avoid a second round, he needs to win at least 50 percent of the vote or 40 percent with a lead of 10 percentage points over the second-placed candidate.
Correa, 49, has ruled since 2007. In a new four-year term, he would face the challenge of securing financing after a 2008 debt default and wooing investors to boost oil output and kick-start the mining industry.
Opposition leaders call Correa a dictator in the making who is quashing free speech through hostile confrontation with media and squelching free enterprise through heavy taxation and constant regulatory changes.
Lasso has called Correa's "Citizens' Revolution" a fast food menu of unsuccessful economic policies copied from Ecuador's era of military rulers and leftist governments like Venezuela's Chavez.
"He'll have to explain how this development model is revolutionary if it's a copy of the dictatorship of the 1970s and depends on high prices for oil that is mortgaged to China in exchange for loans," Lasso said on Thursday at his final rally.
Correa has spent weeks on the campaign trail, from indigenous villages of the Andean highlands to urban slums in the bustling port city of Guayaquil, singing and dancing to play up an image of youthful energy.
An avid cyclist, Correa filmed one campaign spot showing him changing out of a sharp suit into biking clothes and then riding his bike over mountain peaks and past tropical fishing villages to show the improvement of roads under his leadership.
Even some Correa supporters acknowledge they find him brash and domineering. Sharp-tempered and quick to pick fights, he has remained in almost constant conflict with opposition media and on several occasions sued critical reporters and newspapers.
He also put himself on a collision course with the United States last year by letting WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange take refuge at Ecuador's embassy in London and later offering the former computer hacker asylum.
Opposition leaders say the key to his longevity has been revamping state institutions to suit his needs and placing allies in key posts. In 2011, he called a referendum on a justice system overhaul, bypassing a hostile Congress in a move critics say boosted his control over the courts.
Correa has relied heavily on financing from China after a 2008 default on $3.2 billion in bonds left the country locked out of foreign credit markets. Lasso promises to cut taxes and spur entrepreneurship if he wins.
Other opposition candidates include banana magnate and five-time presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa, and former President Lucio Gutierrez, who was ousted in a 2005 coup.
Ecuadoreans also vote for a new legislature on Sunday, through the results are not expected to be in for several days. The Alianza Pais party also hopes to win more than 50 percent of the seats, up from around 42 percent now.
Investors will be watching Correa's new term for signs he is willing to compromise to bring in investment needed to raise stagnant oil production, boost the promising but still nascent mining sector, and expand power generation.
A major test will come this year in negotiations with Canada's Kinross to develop a large gold deposit.