Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s richest man, was looking smug as he basked in the news that he had surprised opinion pollsters by winning the most votes, with about 26 per cent, in the first round of the presidential election.
Rafael Correa, the leftwing nationalist he will face in a run-off on November 26, was trying so hard to smile that it was obvious he was attempting to cover his disappointment of having been relegated to second place – with some 22 per cent.
In Sunday’s post-election TV linkup, the two men refused to speak to each other.
Instead, Mr Noboa, who made his fortune in bananas, said baldly: “Correa is a communist. Ecuadoreans have never elected a communist.” Mr Correa accused Mr Noboa of tax evasion, employing children in his banana plantations and paying workers less than the legal minimum, before storming off the set.
It was a taste of the confrontation, mud-slinging and rancour to come. Faced with a slate of 13 presidential contenders, most Ecuadorean voters spurned the centre and plumped for the two most extreme candidates on offer.
Mr Correa, an ally of Hugo Chávez, the histrionic president of Venezuela, proposes to shut down the US’s military’s base in Ecuador and permanently halt trade talks with Washington. Mr Noboa, who has spent some $6m of his $1.2bn personal wealth on his campaign, pledges to cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela and Cuba, and improve relations with the US.
That sets up Ecuador as a proxy battleground for the struggle between the US and Venezuela in Latin America. Indeed, the surprise entry of a pro-American candidate in the second round may make Washington more interested than ever in the results.
But at least Ecuador faces a genuine choice. “In contrast to previous occasions, we cannot complain that there are no proposals allowing us to distinguish between the candidates,” says Walter Spurrier, a political analyst in Guayaquil. “There are differences, and they are very profound.”
Mr Correa has vowed to restructure debt, renegotiate contracts with foreign investors in the oil industry and protect sensitive industries through tariffs. Mr Noboa, who owns 110 companies, says he will respect all contracts and promises more foreign investment to create jobs.
Mr Correa, whose party put forward no candidates to the Congress, offers a “citizens’ revolution”, including a constituent assembly with the power to dissolve the legislature.
Mr Noboa, whose Prian party may yet emerge as the largest bloc in Congress, says the legislature is the forum for political reform. However, it is likely to be less those policy differences and more the simplistic, repetitive messages that both Mr Correa and Mr Noboa peddled during the first round that will set the tone for the debate ahead.
“Once the vote has polarised between radical political change and economic security without political changes, it becomes clear that the campaign in the second round will be marked by the populism of both left and right,” noted El Comercio newspaper on Monday.
The left-right split also threatens to exacerbate geographical divisions. Mr Noboa topped the poll on coastal areas, winning 36 per cent, while Mr Correa won in the highlands, with 31 per cent.
Apart from Mr Noboa’s win, another big surprise of the election was the strong showing by Gilmar Gutiérrez, the inexperienced younger brother of Lucio Gutiérrez, the former president who was forced out of office last year in the face of massive protests in Quito.
Mr Gutiérrez swept the board in the sparsely populated east of the country, winning more than 70 per cent of the vote in his native Napo province.
To win the east, Mr Correa and Mr Noboa will seek to outdo the populist discourse of the brothers Gutiérrez. In a race that has not distinguished itself as a competition of ideas, that may lead to more dumbing-down.