Voting is under way in volatile Ecuador's run-off presidential battle, with leftist economist Rafael Correa, 43, ahead of conservative banana baron Alvaro Noboa, 56 in voter intention polls.
Correa, a friend of Venezuela's anti-US President Hugo Chavez, held an eight-point advantage over his rival in a survey out just hours before voting started Sunday, though pollsters said 17 percent of the 9.2 million eligible voters were still undecided.
Both candidates fueled tension ahead of the election, with Noboa claiming a rival victory would lead to communist dictatorship and civil war, and Correa warning of the risk of electoral fraud.
Correa repeated the claim after he cast his ballot in Quito. "There are serious risks," he said. "If there is fraud and we accept the result, we'd be complicit in corruption."
A US- and European-educated former finance minister, Correa has stirred unease on financial markets with his calls to renegotiate the country's debt and revise foreign oil companies' contracts in Ecuador.
His friendship with the firebrand Venezuelan leader and his determination not to renew a lease for a US military base in Ecuador also have caused concern in Washington.
Correa, who was four points behind his conservative rival in the October 15 first round of voting, climbed in opinion polls as he toned down his criticism of US President George W. Bush, whom he once called a "dimwit."
He stressed on Saturday he wanted "the best possible" relations with Washington.
He has also distanced himself from Chavez, who himself faces the electorate on December 3.
Noboa, a pro-market conservative who wants to strengthen ties with the United States, claims Chavez backed Correa in a bid to boost his regional influence in Latin America, where several leftist leaders have been elected to office over the past year.
A folksy Bible-thumping anti-communist, Noboa says his opponent intends to turn Ecuador into a dictatorship aligned with Venezuela and communist Cuba.
This, the tycoon says, would trigger a bloody coup in the Andean country that has had seven presidents over the past 10 years -- three of whom were forced from office by tumultuous street protests.
Ecuador's wealthiest man, Noboa portrays himself as a champion of the poor, who make up almost half the oil-rich country's 13 million population.
Correa calls him a reckless capitalist who got rich on the back of exploited workers and who plans to run Ecuador like his private estate.
"I have absolutely no expectations," said Washington Ortega, a 47-year-old salesman. "I voted for the lesser of two evils," he said after casting his ballot at a Quito school.
"Correa is a communist and he has never done anything. Noboa represents economic interests, he doesn't represent the working people," said Ortega.
Like several other voters at the north Quito polling station, he dismissed Correa's warnings of possible electoral wrongdoing.
"You can see it's all going smoothly," said Jose Nazareno, a 61-year-old airport employee, pointing to voters calmly casting their ballots as the aroma of roast pork emerged from nearby street stalls.
Two dozen soldiers, some armed with automatic weapons, and several policeman kept a distracted eye on the steady stream of voters.
Correa on Sunday urged his supporters to closely monitor the election to avert a repetition of the fraud he claims marred the first round of voting, telling them to watch out for vote-buying, ballot-switching and ballot box-stuffing.
Voting got under way Sunday at 7:00 am (1200 GMT) and was due to conclude 10 hours later, with exit polls expected minutes later.
Copyright © 2006 AFP