Ecuador's presidential frontrunner Andres Arauz called for national unity ahead of a second round runoff in April as indigenous candidate Yaku Perez claimed a "fraud" was taking place to try to keep him out of the race.
Leftist economist Arauz leads the field with 32.3 percent of the vote following Sunday's general election with over 97.5 percent of results declared, but indigenous rights activist Perez and right-wing ex-banker Guillermo Lasso are locked in a fierce battle to finish second.
Arauz told AFP he hoped victory in the April 11 runoff would "build a project of national unity, in which we can have a greater level of self-criticism and invite the different segments of our society to unite on an emergency economic and health plan."
The vote took place amid a backdrop of economic problems exacerbated by a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed 15,000 lives in Ecuador.
Sunday's polls were marred by long lines of people waiting to cast ballots as virus restrictions caused chaos.
The battle for second place has been full of twists, the latest of which has been Perez's accusations.
"A fraud is being connived... to prevent us from reaching the second round," Perez told the press.
Initial exit polls suggested Lasso would face Arauz in the runoff, only to be upended when an official projection by the country's National Electoral Council based on partial results pointed to Perez.
The gap between the two candidates has narrowed again, though, with Perez on 19.8 percent and Lasso on 19.6 percent.
But the Electoral Council has said it is revising almost 14 percent of votes due to inconsistencies.
"There's panic that we'll get to the second round," said Perez, alleging that he'd lost 15 percentage points to other candidates after some of his votes were registered to others.
In Washington, the State Department urged voters to "remain calm and to exercise patience while Ecuador's institutions finish tallying the votes and work to resolve conflicts in a peaceful and transparent manner."
- End to corruption? -
The country's 13.1 million voters are choosing a successor to unpopular socialist President Lenin Moreno and the 137 members of congress.
Strict health precautions appeared to slow voting and may have discouraged some from casting their ballots, as long lines stretched outside polling stations.
The field had been crowded, with 16 candidates, including Ximena Pena, the only woman.
Arauz, 36, represents the Union of Hope (UNES) coalition of left-wing parties, while lawyer Perez, 51, is from the leftist Pachakutik party, and is the first indigenous candidate to get this far in the presidential race.
Arauz is a protege of Rafael Correa, a two-time president who currently lives in Belgium to evade a conviction for corruption but remains a strong force in the country.
"People have voted not in direct support to Arauz but because he is the Correa candidate," political scientist Karen Garzon Sherdek, from the International University SEK, told AFP.
"Thank you dear Ecuador!" Correa tweeted as the results came in. "The Citizen Revolution has won overwhelmingly, despite a dirty campaign and 4 years of brutal persecution and infamy."
Arauz has promised to return the country to a socialist path after a four-year, austerity-driven hiatus under Moreno.
However, he vowed to take a different approach to relations with the US from that of Correa, who aligned himself with socialist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia.
"Our relations with the United States will be excellent, especially now with the administration of President (Joe) Biden," said Arauz.
He has pledged to disburse $1,000 to a million families during his first month in office, as well as a special tax on the rich.
- Under pressure -
Ecuador is mired in debt as the profits of an oil boom during the Correa presidency dried up under Moreno amid crashing crude prices.
National debt rose from 26 percent of GDP to 44 percent during Moreno's term.
The coronavirus epidemic has piled on the pressure, with some $6.4 billion in losses attributed directly to the health crisis, according to government data.
Ecuador's economy is forecast to contract 8.9 percent in 2020, while unemployment reached 8.6 percent last September -- more than doubling in nine months.
Moreno, his popularity at an all-time low of seven percent, did not seek reelection. His four-year term will end on May 24.