Man of the people closes in on presidency

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RAFAEL Correa is young, charismatic, anti-George Bush, an unabashed disciple of Venezuela's radical president Hugo Chavez - and the favourite to win tomorrow's election for the Ecuadorean presidency.

"We will whip those who have always exploited us" is one catchy line of his party, Alianza Pas (Country Alliance).

The 43-year-old economics professor has run a slick and fiery campaign, portraying himself as the outsider in a political arena known as one of the most corrupt in the region.

Ecuador has had five presidents in ten years, three of whom were forced from office, and is desperately looking for a hero to lift more than half of the population out of poverty. Mr Correa insists he is the people's man. From a humble background, he escaped poverty via study, winning a scholarship to schools in his native Guayaquil on the Pacific coast, before moving to Belgium and the United States, where he got his PhD.

His main opponents represent the traditional and largely discredited political classes. They are headed by Alvaro Noboa, 55, a banana magnate who has twice reached the presidential run-offs and twice been defeated. The other challengers are Cynthia Viteri and a former vice-president, Leon Roldos. None is polling more than 20 per cent.

Briefly the economics minister in the current government, Mr Correa is not running candidates for his party in congress. If he wins, he plans to turn to the people to govern, setting up a Constituent Assembly, as Mr Chavez did in Venezuela and another ideological ally, Evo Morales, did in Bolivia.

This is sure to prompt instability and fierce resistance from a congress dominated by the traditional parties.

International financial markets are fearful, too, as Mr Correa has spoken of a debt restructuring.

Washington has bitten its tongue in the campaign, aware he is against free trade agreements being pushed hard by the Bush administration, against the continuing US presence in the Manta military base on Ecuador's coast, and against the idea of Colombia's Marxist rebels being labelled "terrorists".

If Mr Correa does not win the first round of voting, the traditional parties will unite against him in the second. He needs 40 per cent tomorrow, and polls put him just short at 37 per cent.