Many Ecuadoreans are weary of painful economic austerity measures and eager for a return to socialism, encouraging left-wing candidate Andres Arauz who hopes to win without needing a runoff vote.
Leftist economist Andres Arauz has claimed "a resounding victory" as exit polls predicted he would face right-wing ex-banker Guillermo Lasso in a runoff after polls closed in Ecuador's election.
The vote was marred by long lines of people waiting to cast ballots on Sunday as coronavirus restrictions caused chaos.
"Resounding victory in all regions of our beautiful country. Our victory is 2 to 1 ahead of the banker," Arauz wrote on Twitter, although he urged supporters to wait for "official results before celebrating" his success.
Two exit polls showed Arauz had topped the vote with 34.9 to 36.2 percent ahead of Lasso on 21 to 21.7 percent.
To win outright, a candidate needs 50 percent plus one vote or 40 percent and a 10-point lead over the nearest rival.
The country's 13.1 million voted to choose a successor to unpopular socialist President Lenin Moreno and the 137 members of the unicameral congress.
The vote took place as Latin America is battling a second, deadly wave of Covid-19 which has aggravated Ecuador's economic troubles.
Voters arrived at polling stations wearing face masks in a nation where the pandemic has claimed 15,000 lives and infected more than 257,000.
Promises made by front-runners
Front-runners Arauz and Lasso are both predicting victories for their side.
Arauz, 35, represents the Union of Hope (UNES) coalition of left-wing parties, while businessman Lasso, 65, is from the CREO rightwing movement.
Arauz is a protege of two-time socialist president Rafael Correa, who remains a strong political force in the country despite a graft conviction that sank his hopes of campaigning to become Arauz's deputy.
Arauz has promised to return the country to a socialist path after a four-year hiatus under Moreno.
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.
Running in his third presidential race, free market advocate Lasso has said he would create a million jobs in a year.
He will likely stick to the austerity policies adopted by Moreno, who has had to rein in spending in exchange for International Monetary Fund loans to bolster the oil-producing country's faltering dollar-based economy.
Ecuador is mired in debt as the profits of an oil boom during the Correa presidency dried up under Moreno as the price of crude crashed.
The 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, is not seeking reelection.
Given the polling numbers, it is unlikely the first presidential round will be decisive.
To emerge winner, a candidate must take half of the votes cast, plus one, or at least 40 percent with a 10 percentage point advantage over his nearest rival.
A second round is provisionally scheduled for April 11.
Perez, the first indigenous contender in 15 years, is polling at 12 percent. The remaining 12 candidates are all at under four percent, including the only woman on the list – Ximena Pena.