QUITO - Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa celebrated victory Monday after claiming that his ruling coalition had won a solid majority in a newly elected assembly that will rewrite the country's constitution.
"The projections are clear: the victory of the citizens is unquestionable," Correa told a news conference, predicting that his government would win 80 out of the 130 seats up for grabs on the future Constituent Assembly.
Initial exit polls from Sunday's elections gave his camp between 70 and 79 assembly seats, according to pollsters and independent observers. But Correa insisted he would win 80 and seize control of the assembly, which is to be tasked with drafting a new constitution.
However, opposition leader Gilmar Gutierrez refused to accept defeat, saying that it was necessary to wait for officials results from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The opposition will control between 23 and 30 seats with the rest going to centrist and indigenous groups, according to exit polls.
Voters had to choose from among more than 3,000 candidates vying for 130 regional delegate spots.
Correa was hoping for an assembly that will dissolve the unicameral Congress, which he has called "corrupt and incompetent."
A US and European-educated former finance minister, Correa says the Constituent Assembly will stem political instability in Ecuador despite warnings his proposed economic reforms could scare off foreign investors.
The new assembly will start work on October 31 and will have 180 days to write a draft constitution, which then must be ratified by a national referendum in 2008.
The most prominent of the 3,229 candidates in Sunday's election was Correa's nemesis, right-wing billionaire Alvaro Noboa, who was defeated in the November presidential election.
Ecuador's wealthiest man, and a folksy politician, Noboa has vowed to defeat Correa, whom he calls "the communist devil."
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"Correa has become a tyrant who keeps you in poverty, the tyrant who keeps you sick, the tyrant who keeps you without a home or health care. But I am here, Ecuadorans," Noboa said during his last electoral rally.
Critics say Correa is following in the footsteps of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez, who in 1999 successfully pushed for the election of a constituent assembly packed with his supporters.
They say that like Chavez, Correa would use the assembly to concentrate his own power and that this would scare off foreign investors.
He has proposed a constitution that would strengthen state control of the economy and cut back Congress's power to dismiss presidents.
Correa denied however that he would pursue a "totalitarian" or "foreign" track. "We are good people," he said after Sunday's voting. "There are no hidden agendas and the international community knows it."
"We are looking for a state model that guarantees everyone equal access to the conditions for progress," he said. "The people has won the mother of all battles and has done so in an incredible and convincing way."
Controversy over the proposed constitutional reforms sparked a deep political crisis earlier this year when a court fired half the 100 members of Congress for seeking to block the project.
Correa has called the assembly a key component of the "citizens' revolution" he says will make a more just country of Ecuador, where 40 percent of wealth is held by 10 percent of the 13 million-strong population.
He says the new constitution will help regulate the economy and end the political volatility in a country that has seen seven presidents come and go in the past decade, including three who left office amid tumultuous uprisings.
"We accept this triumph with extreme humility and total responsibility," Correa said, adding that he would "sit down to talk with all the groups that sincerely want to keep the country going."
© 2007 Agence France Presse