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By Alexandra Valencia and Brian Ellsworth
QUITO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Ecuadorean voters struggling under a battered economy are leaning toward a return to socialism in February's presidential vote, as nostalgia for better times under former leftist president Rafael Correa has pushed one of his proteges into the lead.
Economist Andres Arauz, 35, is promising to revive the heavy social spending of Correa's decade in power and to tear up an IMF-backed austerity plan that has been made more painful by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ecuadorean bonds tumbled this month on the fiery rhetoric from Arauz, who has also proposed giving $1,000 to a million families within the first week of taking office.
It is a sharp contrast to the course laid out by President Lenin Moreno, himself a former Correa ally whose market-oriented reforms were unable to kick-start the oil-dependent economy.
"We're going with my family to vote for Arauz, hoping that all the good things that happened with Correa will be repeated," said Vinicio Naranjo, 45, a teacher in a working class Quito neighborhood. "We hope that Correa will be brought back, or at least the system that benefited the poor."
Most opinion polls show Arauz in the lead for the Feb. 7 vote, though analysts believe he will not get enough votes to avoid a runoff that would be held on April 11.
His principal rival is conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, who is making his third presidential bid on a platform of boosting foreign investment and raising oil production.
Indigenous activist Yaku Perez, who ranks third in the polls and is considered unlikely to win, is proposing a ban on all mining activity and limits on new concessions for oil production.
It is not clear who would triumph in a run-off but the redistribution of Perez's votes will be key.
"What this election is doing is recreating (the environment of) the Correa government," said Blasco Peñaherrera of polling firm Market. "Illusions and fears are being sold."
WEARY OF AUSTERITY
Moreno, who is not seeking another term, was elected in 2017 on expectations that he would continue Correa's policies. But the two quickly fell out as Moreno accused his predecessor of corruption and of irresponsibly running up debt.
He sought new trade deals and alliances with the private sector, and began a broad push to develop the mining industry, but the economy never took off.
His efforts to balance the budget in 2019 through a fuel price hike led to nearly two weeks of violent protests that forced him to walk back the measure and later seek $6.5 billion in International Monetary Fund financing that required painful belt-tightening measures.
In 2020, the coronavirus outbreak left morgues overflowing and businesses shuttered for months.
Ecuador now estimates that more than 2 million people slipped into poverty in the first three months of the pandemic and about 523,000 were unemployed as of September.
It is precisely the scenario that favors the rhetoric of Correa, who spent years lambasting the IMF and whose PhD dissertation in economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign focused on the harm caused by the kinds of reforms promoted by the IMF and similar institutions.
Arauz promises that Correa, who lives in Belgium, will be one of his main advisers if he wins the election. Correa is barred from being on the ticket because he was found guilty in 2020 of violating campaign finance laws.
Even Lasso, who pollsters say is hampered by his image as a conservative businessman, has questioned parts of the austerity plan, insisting he would not raise value-added taxes as the IMF has recommended.
"I want Arauz to win so that Correa returns," said Maria Acosta, 67, a retiree who complains of difficulties in getting access to health care and delays in receiving her pension.
"With him, everything will be better." (Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Brian Ellsworth, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)
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