A center-right political outsider with a focus on jobs beat out the leftist candidate in a high-stakes election that was focused on the economy and surging gang violence.
Daniel Noboa, the 35-year-old heir of a banana empire, won Ecuador’s presidential election on Sunday, in a high-stakes campaign driven by an electorate frustrated with the country’s surging violence and ailing economy.
The center-right political outsider defeated Luisa González, a leftist handpicked by former President Rafael Correa who ran on a pledge of returning to a time of prosperity and low homicide rates under the Correa government.
The vote signaled a desire for change in a nation of more than 17 million on South America’s western coast that has seen a wave of violence from international criminal groups and local gangs that have turned Ecuador into a key player in the global drug trade and sent tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Like much of the rest of Latin America, Ecuador was dealt a major financial blow by the coronavirus pandemic, and many workers struggle to make enough money to provide for their families. Only 34 percent of Ecuadoreans have adequate employment, according to government data.
Mr. Noboa received 52.29 percent of the vote compared with Ms. González’s 47.71 percent, with more than 90 percent of votes counted on Sunday evening, according to official figures.
Ms. González conceded defeat in a speech.
Ecuador was once a peaceful nation compared with its neighbors, particularly Colombia, which for decades was torn by violence among armed guerrilla units, paramilitary groups and drug cartels.
That all changed in recent years as Colombia forged a peace deal with the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group, and Ecuador became dominated by an increasingly powerful narco-trafficking industry that includes Mexican cartels and Albanian gangs. Through its ports on the Pacific Coast, Ecuador has become a major transshipment point for cocaine that is smuggled to Europe.
News reports regularly feature beheadings, car bombings, police assassinations, young men hanging from bridges and children gunned down outside their homes or schools.
When Mr. Noboa is sworn in, he will hold office until May 2025. During that time, he will be forced to reckon with the international groups that have joined forces with prison-based gangs in a brutal competition for the lucrative drug industry.
And with little governing experience and a divided legislature, analysts say this will be a challenge.
It will most likely take him a long time to form a coalition government, and it will probably be ideologically incoherent and unpredictable, said Will Freeman, a fellow in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. research institute.
Mr. Noboa has tried to straddle the left-right divide on the campaign trail, yet his choice of running mate, Verónica Abad, puzzled many analysts. Ms. Abad is a right-wing business coach who has spoken out against abortion, feminism and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and has expressed support for Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former far-right president.
“If that’s any indication,” Mr. Freeman said, “I think his government is going to be a real hodgepodge.”
Mr. Noboa has vowed to rein in the violence, though neither he nor Ms. González made security a central part of their campaigns.
Both candidates talked about providing more money for the police and deploying the military to secure ports used to smuggle drugs out of the country and prisons, which are controlled by violent gangs.
Mr. Noboa has proposed the use of technology, like drones and satellite tracking systems, to stem drug trafficking, and has suggested building prison boats to isolate the most violent inmates.
But analysts say he has not done enough to prioritize combating the crime that has destabilized Ecuador and turned it into one of Latin America’s most violent countries.
The departing president, Guillermo Lasso, called for early elections in May as he faced impeachment proceedings against him stemming from accusations of embezzlement. Mr. Lasso had also grown increasingly unpopular with voters angry over the government’s inability to address the spiraling violence.
The August assassination of a presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was a traumatic jolt for a nation that went to the polls during what has been perhaps the most violent electoral season in its history.
Beside Mr. Villavicencio — who was outspoken about what he claimed were links between organized crime and the government — five other politicians have been killed this year. Earlier this month, seven men accused of killing Mr. Villavicencio were found dead in prison. These events only sharpened Ecuadoreans’ desire for change.
Mr. Noboa’s victory defies the recent trend of leftist victories seen elsewhere in the region, like Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia, but aligns with a budding demand for outsiders seen in Argentina’s upcoming elections.
Ms. González, 45, was the handpicked candidate of Mr. Correa, who led the country from 2007 to 2017. Her close association with him helped elevate her political profile, but it also hurt her among some voters.
By contrast, the Harvard-educated Mr. Noboa comes from one of the richest families in Latin America, known to most Ecuadoreans for its banana empire, which features one of the world’s best known fruit brands, Bonita bananas.
But the Noboa family’s vast holdings are varied and include fertilizers, plastics, cardboard and the country’s largest container storage facility.
Mr. Noboa’s father ran unsuccessfully for president five times, though the younger Mr. Noboa’s political career goes back only to 2021, when he was elected to Ecuador’s Congress.
He has positioned himself as “the employment president,” even including a work application form on his website, and has pledged to attract international investment and trade and to cut taxes.
Despite his family pedigree, Mr. Noboa has tried to set himself apart, pointing out that he has his own business and that his personal wealth is valued at less than $1 million.
His father, who lost to Mr. Correa in 2006, frequently referred to his leftist opponent as a “Communist devil.” But his son has avoided directly attacking “correísmo,” and the younger Mr. Noboa’s victory shows that voters are fed up with traditional political divides.
Pablo Pérez, 29, a data engineer in the port city of Guayaquil, said he voted for Mr. Noboa because “more than anything, he is a new person, who brings new things.”
“The other candidate, on the other hand,” Mr. Pérez said, “represents a government that we already had in the country, and that although it had its good things, it had, above all, bad things.”
He was also drawn to Mr. Noboa’s security proposals.
“We need security to improve immediately, because we cannot go out on the streets as we are,” he said. “All businesses are closed. There is a feeling of fear.”
Nelson Ramiro Obando, 60, a retiree in Quito, said he voted for Mr. Noboa because of his youth, his business experience and his debate performance, in which he appeared “prepared.”
“We citizens are at risk every day,” Mr. Obando said. “Mr. Noboa will not be able to do much — it is only a year and a half — but if he solves a little of the insecurity we live in, I would be more than grateful.”
Genevieve Glatsky reported from Bogotá, Colombia; José María León Cabrera from Quito, Ecuador; and Thalíe Ponce from Guayaquil, Ecuador.