Ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno was declared the winner of Ecuador's presidential runoff Sunday, delivering a major setback to a recent right-ward surge in Latin American politics and providing continuity to President Rafael Correa's "Citizens' Revolution."
But his rival, conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, has yet to concede defeat and demanded a recount after three exit polls showed him winning, setting the stage for protests and charges of election fraud in this historically turbulent Andean nation.
"We're not fools, nor are the Ecuadorean people," Lasso said on Twitter, hours after claiming victory based on the exit polls results. "We will act democratically and with respect for authorities but firmly to defend the will of the people."
With more than 94 per cent of voting acts counted, the National Electoral Council said Moreno beat Lasso 51 per cent to 49 per cent.
Thousands of outraged Lasso supporters shouting "fraud" broke through metal barricades and almost reached the entrance of the electoral council's headquarters in Quito before being pushed back by police. A similar scuffle took place outside the electoral offices in Guayaquil, where Lasso voted.
Moreno supporters celebrated and accused their opponents of trying to disavow results. The head of the electoral council, a favourite punching bag of the opposition, appealed for calm.
"Ecuador deserves that its political actors show ethical responsibility in recognizing the democratic will expressed by the people at the voting booths," said National Electoral President Juan Pablo Pozo. "Not a single vote has been given or taken away from anyone."
Three exit polls, including one that accurately predicted the first-round results, showed Lasso winning by as much as six percentage points. A quick count of voting acts by a respected local watchdog found there was a technical tie with a difference of less than 0.6 percentage points separating the two candidates. The group refrained from saying which candidate had the advantage.
"The moral fraud of the right-wing won't go unpunished," Correa said on Twitter, referring to what Moreno called misleading exit polls that had "lied" to his rival.
Earlier, a jubilant Lasso claimed victory and told supporters in Guayaquil that he would free political prisoners and heal divisions created by 10 years of iron-fisted rule by Correa. Before the election, he said he would evict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London within 30 days of taking office while Moreno has said he will allow him to stay. .
With Ecuador's economy slated to shrink by 2.7 per cent this year as oil prices remain low and with a majority of citizens stating in surveys that they are eager for change, analysts had been anticipating that Ecuadoreans would back Lasso and join the growing list of Latin American nations shifting to the right.
Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno had inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country's 1999 banking crisis.
Authorities deployed thousands of officers to beef up security at vote-processing centres around the country after a contentious first-round election on Feb. 19, in which Moreno fell just short of the required threshold to avoid a runoff.
The vote count dragged on for several days before the official results were announced, provoking accusations of fraud from both sides and angry protests that have injected an unusual degree of volatility in the election results.
Fearing a contested election, church leaders have appealed to both campaigns to accept whatever the results.
Lasso has put forward a pro-business agenda aimed at attracting foreign investment, reducing taxes and generating more jobs and in recent days drew comparisons between continuing a Correa-style government and going down the same path as socialist Venezuela.
Lasso has benefited from ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa's government and a $12-million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador, but analysts say he has not connected with lower-income voters.
While Lasso has said he would evict Assange from the embassy where Ecuador granted him asylum in 2012 to prevent his extradition to Sweden, Moreno has said he could stay, increasing international interest in Sunday's vote.