Former banker Guillermo Lasso won Ecuador's presidential election Sunday, pledging "opportunities and prosperity" despite a pandemic-battered and debt-laden economy and a political system riven by gridlock.
Conservative Lasso declared himself president-elect after his socialist opponent Andrés Arauz conceded.
With 93 percent of votes counted, the 65-year-old held a lead of almost five percentage points over his rival.
Lasso, 65, a self-made millionaire and father of five, has vowed to uphold a US$6.5-billion financing agreement with the International Monetary Fund and to keep up payments on the country’s overseas bonds. In his victory speech on Sunday evening, he said he will work to create “the prosperity we all long for.”
"On May 24 we will assume with responsibility the challenge of changing our country's destiny and achieving for all Ecuador the opportunities and prosperity we all yearn for," said Lasso, a seasoned politician who has finished second in presidential votes twice before.
Economist Arauz, best known as the protege of former president Rafael Correa, was magnanimous despite earlier claiming victory following a tight exit poll.
"I congratulate him on his electoral triumph today and I will show him our democratic convictions," said Arauz.
Lasso had 52.51 percent of the vote compared with Arauz's 47.49 percent, with 93.14 percent of votes counted, the National Electoral Council said.
The director-general of the Organisation of American States, Luis Almagro, congratulated Lasso on the win, saying he hoped they could work together in "strengthening democracy, human rights, security and development."
Both Uruguay President Luis Lacalle Pou and Luis Abinader, president of the Dominican Republic, said on Twitter they had called Lasso to offer their congratulations.
"I am sure that we are both going to work for the economic recovery of our peoples and the generation of jobs for our fellow citizens," Abinader wrote.
Former president Mauricio Macri was among the politicians in Argentina who congratulated the president-elect.
"I just spoke with Guillermo Lasso to congratulate him on his victory, which is very important for Ecuador and for the region, " Macri posted on his Twitter account.
President Alberto Fernández has yet to acknowledge the victory.
Voting is obligatory in Ecuador, and opinion polls had the rivals neck and neck heading into the election, as the oil-rich nation's 13.1 million registered voters picked a successor to the unpopular Lenín Moreno.
The campaign in the South American country was dominated by an economic crisis aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Arauz, 36, is virtually unknown, but topped February's first round of voting on the back of support from his mentor Correa, who led the country from 2007 to 2017.
The economist didn't vote on Sunday because he is still registered in Mexico, where he was studying for a doctorate before deciding to run in the election.
Many experts billed the election as a battle of "Correism versus anti-Correism" in a country bitterly divided along political lines.
"This social division, that the campaign highlighted, means that the vote to reject Correa effectively goes to Lasso," said Pablo Romero, an analyst at Salesiana University.
Correa would have been Arauz's running mate but for an eight-year conviction for corruption.
He lives in exile in Belgium, where his wife was born, avoiding his prison sentence. But his influence on Ecuadoran politics remains strong.
The campaign for control of Ecuador, an oil exporter and world-leading producer of bananas, shrimp and the balsa wood crucial for wind-turbine rotors, has implications beyond is borders.
Arauz, 36, who pledged to use Central Bank reserves to pay poor families, had been expected to strengthen ties with left-leaning governments in the region including in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina.
Lasso’s win represents more of a focus on ties with Washington, and with US-aligned governments in countries such as Chile, Colombia and Brazil.
Lasso will take over from Moreno on May 24 and will immediately face an economic crisis exacerbated by a 7.8 percent contraction in GDP in 2020.
Overall debt is almost US$64 billion – 63 percent of GDP – of which US$45 billion is external debt.
At the same time, the country has been hard hit by the pandemic, with hospitals overwhelmed by more than 340,000 coronavirus infections and more than 17,000 deaths.
To govern successfully, Lasso will have to establish a working relationship with the National Assembly, where his backers hold just 31 of the 137 seats. He will also need to reach out to the more than 1.8 million Ecuadoreans who voided their votes, including many from indigenous movements.
"There will be permanent tension with the executive. There's almost no chance of the reforms the country needs," said Romero.
Lasso will find it tough to implement unpopular economic policies since legislators from other parties will be reluctant to spend their political capital on his behalf, said Maria José Calderón, political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University in Quito.
“I’m just hoping the job doesn’t end up too big for Lasso,” given his lack of a majority in the next legislature, said María Paz Jervis, dean of law and social studies at SEK University in Quito.
The president-elect has said he’ll promote policies that boost investment and private sector job creation, and will phase out a tax on taking money out of the country. He’s also promised to boost the monthly minimum wage to US$500 from US$400, and oversee the vaccination of nine million people against Covid-19 during his first 100 days in office.
Lasso scraped into the run-off by less than half a percentage point ahead of indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez, who contested the result and claimed to have been the victim of fraud.
His party refused to back either candidate in the second round and promoted blank votes.
Pérez publicly annulled his own vote writing "Yaku president resistance" on his ballot.
Around 16 percent of votes were invalid, up from 9.55 percent in the first round.
Ecuador’s southern neighbour Peru also held presidential elections on Sunday, with exit polls suggesting a messy runoff after no candidate got near the threshold needed for a first-round win.