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October 9, 2006 3:00 am

Rafael Correa: Chavista with a whip hand

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The symbol of Rafael Correa's presidential campaign is a belt.

At rallies, the radical nationalist bounces on to the stage to a booming campaign anthem (to the tune of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It") wielding a brown leather belt, which he flexes along to the music.

His slogan - "Dale Correa" (Give them the belt) - plays on his name and his goal of whipping Ecuador's politicians into shape.

In a year in which Evo Morales, a militant leftist, became president of Bolivia and other allies of Hugo Chávez, the bombastic Venezuelan president, came close to winning power in Peru and Mexico,

Mr Correa, 43, is the latest Latin American presidential contender promising to punish both discredited local elites and foreign investors.

If opinion polls are correct, he will comfortably take first place in Sunday's election although he is likely to fall short of the 40 per cent needed to claim outright victory in the first round.

Even so, the remote possibility that Mr Correa might avoid a second-round run-off in November caused a shiver of panic last week on Wall Street where Ecuador's sovereign debt spreads widened sharply.

That reaction has been prompted by campaign pledges such as a promise to prioritise social spending above repaying debt and to renegotiate contracts with foreign investors in the oil industry such as Repsol of Spain, Brazil's Petrobras, Andes Petroleum of China and Perenco of France.

True to his membership of the pro-Chávez camp, Mr Correa also has a fine line in anti-American rhetoric, calling George W. Bush "a tremendously dimwitted president who has done great damage to his country and to the world".

Washington could dismiss that as hot air were Ecuador not the second biggest exporter of crude to the US and host to the Pentagon's only military base in South America. Mr Correa has pledged to shut it.

He has also echoed his fellow-travellers by promising an assembly to rewrite the country's constitution, harnessing the widespread antipathy towards Ecuador's reviled Congress.

But Mr Correa is not a carbon-copy of other Andean Chavistas. Rather than a military or rural peasant background, he comes from a middle-class family in Guayaquil, the country's largest, richest city. Moreover, he has had training in economics with a masters degree from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and a doctorate from the University of Illinois

He is also probably the best dressed of all Mr Chávez's regional allies, appearing in a suit and tie for television interviews and presidential debates. But he claims never to have bought a tie and jokes that his first presidential decree would be to ban them.

Thanks to a year in his youth spent volunteering in a remote highland town, Mr Correa is the only one of the main candidates to speak the indigenous Quichua language, which has endeared him to rural voters traditionally suspicious of urban presidential hopefuls. His personal style has also gone down well: he is young, energetic, wears a permanent smile and oozes charisma and charm.

Many Ecuadoreans say that, in interviews, Mr Correa is the only candidate who looks his questioner in the eye and answers the questions asked. He comes across as keen and well-prepared, arriving at interviews with a briefcase of documents, including a copy of the constitution, which he produces to support his points.

However, many former associates say Mr Correa can be arrogant and snide. After a short stint as finance minister, he resigned last year - in part, because he brokered a $300m loan from Mr Chávez behind his own president's back. The refusal of any prominent indigenous leader to serve as his running-mate is also said to have been down to his conceitedness.

Mr Correa may struggle to keep up his perma-grin during a second round. The campaign has certainly taken a toll - he has suffered with the flu and a cough, his voice becoming rasping, and on a recent trip to a rural highland area south of Quito, he struggled and failed to stifle a yawn in front of the crowd.

But supporters of León Roldós, the centre-left moderate most likely to face him in the second round, will need to do more than simply hope Mr Correa's batteries run out early.

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