QUITO, Ecuador -- Banana billionaire Alvaro Noboa edged left-wing economist Rafael Correa in the presidential election's first round yesterday, setting up a runoff between two candidates who are bitter rivals and polar opposites, according to early results.
With nearly two-thirds of the ballots tabulated, Noboa polled 26.8 percent, and Correa had 22.4 percent, according to electoral authorities.
Noboa, whose family owns Ecuador's largest banana plantation, closed what many pollsters saw as a 5- or 6-percentage-point deficit with Correa in the campaign's final days.
A loser in two previous runs at the presidency, Noboa, 55, gave a preview of the campaign rhetoric leading up to the Nov. 26 runoff, describing Correa in a TV interview yesterday as a "spoiled child" who is "pro-terrorism, pro-communism and pro-Cuba."
Correa, a 43-year-old economics professor with a doctorate from the University of Illinois, said if Noboa won, he would turn Ecuador into a private banana plantation. Correa added that his campaign's exit polls showed he won by 5 percentage points and called the early results "a fraud foretold by the oligarchy."
Correa had risen in polls from fifth place in July to first early this month. He ran an anti-establishment and anti-U.S. campaign in which he made no effort to conceal his friendship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Washington's most outspoken critic in the region.
But Noboa, whose net worth was estimated at more than $1 billion by Forbes magazine in 1997, spent lavishly on his campaign, and there were reports of widespread giveaways, including wheelchairs for the disabled and cash handouts to the poor. Correa also spent large sums in a campaign that many speculated was financed partly by Chavez.
Simon Pachano, a teacher at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Quito, the capital, said the results reflected widening political polarization. "Both Noboa and Correa ran anti-party, anti-system campaigns, and there is no middle ground between the two extremes. This sets up a dangerous scenario for Ecuador," Pachano said.
The ideological divide between the two front-runners is wide. Noboa, a proponent of open-market policies, promises housing and health subsidies and the creation of 3 million jobs.
Correa promises a reformist "citizen revolution" modeled in some aspects after the Chavez agenda. He is a harsh critic of President Bush, opposes unregulated trade and supported the Ecuadorean government's seizure of Occidental Petroleum's Block 15 oil field in May. Occidental has taken the case to international arbitration, and Correa promises to ignore any order to compensate the oil company for the takeover.
Although some observers think Correa would become more moderate as president, others expect him to follow through on the "citizen revolution" he is proposing. He caused tremors on Wall Street by threatening to default on Ecuador's foreign debt, something the government has done three times since the early 1980s.
About 9 million Ecuadoreans went to the polls yesterday to choose among 13 candidates vying to become the eighth president this unstable country will have seen in 11 years.
Three presidents have been forced from office since 1996. Since the nation's founding as a republic in 1830, presidents have served an average of 20 months.
Noboa's family-owned Corporacion Noboa operates Clementina, a 25,000-acre plantation 45 miles north of the coastal city of Guayaquil that is one of the world's largest banana producers and exporters. The company also owns auto manufacturing and shipping interests and a Coca-Cola bottling operation.
Chris Kraul writes for the Los Angeles Times.