Leftist former Vice President Lenin Moreno appeared headed to a narrow victory Sunday in Ecuador's presidential runoff, defying a recent Latin American electoral trend in which voters have rejected populist candidates.
With 94% of the votes counted, Moreno had 51% to 49% for former bank executive Guillermo Lasso, according to results released by the national electoral council.
But Lasso, who had earlier declared victory based on exit polls, said there were irregularities and he would seek a recount.
"They have crossed a line and we will defend the will of the people from an attempt at fraud by an illegitimate government," Lasso said at a news conference in the coastal city of Guayaquil.
He warned outgoing President Rafael Correa, "Don't play with fire, don't tease Ecuadoreans, there are fearless people here, don't play with them."
Moreno was Correa's handpicked choice to continue his "citizen revolution," which aims to redistribute resources to the poor while boosting public works projects.
"I will be president of all Ecuadoreans," Moreno told celebrating supporters at a hotel in Quito, the capital. "We have advanced a lot, and will continue to advance."
A win by Moreno would mean that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would probably continue to enjoy safe haven in Ecuador's embassy in London, where he has been holed up since 2012. Moreno has said he will continue to accommodate Assange, who is wanted in Sweden on sexual assault charges, while Lasso has promised to evict him.
Moreno, 64, headed a United Nations commission on the disabled after serving as Correa's vice president from 2007 to 2013. He was paralyzed after being shot during a 1998 robbery and uses a wheelchair.
Lasso, 61, is the former chairman of Banco Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest financial institution.
In recent years, Ecuador has seen its economy flounder due to declines in commodity sales that fueled Correa's generous social welfare policies.
Many voters were alarmed at the continued high levels of public spending that increased Ecuador's indebtedness and caused the economy to stagnate, said Simon Pachano, a political scientist at the Faculty for Studies of Latin American Social Sciences, a think tank and graduate school in Quito. Much of the country's debt is owed to China, which has advanced billions of dollars in loans to Correa in exchange for future oil deliveries.
But Moreno's promise to continue Correa's generous social welfare policies resonated in a country with significant levels of poverty, and Ecuadoreans apparently bucked the recent trend by which voters in Brazil, Argentina and Peru rejected left-leaning populist candidates.
Elected president for three straight terms, Correa owed much of his popularity to an ambitious road-building program and expansion of schools and clinics.
"I voted for Moreno so this process of change called 'citizen revolution' can continue," said Maria de los Angeles Ramos, a 44-year-old dentist, after casting her ballot at a school in Quito. "I am for a government that stands up for the majority and not just for a few privileged ones."
During his campaign, Lasso promised to create 1 million new jobs in the next four years by lowering taxes and promoting policies that would attract investment and encourage entrepreneurship. He also promised to reduce public spending.
Moreno won the first round of voting in February against eight other candidates, falling just 1 percentage point short of the 40% of votes needed to avoid a runoff.
Correa granted Assange political asylum after the fugitive interviewed him for an English-language Russian TV channel in 2012. During the exchange, the president praised WikiLeaks and said he identified with its founder as a fellow member of the "club of the persecuted."
Special correspondents Jaramillo Viteri and Kraul reported from Quito and Portland, Ore., respectively.
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8:15 p.m.: This article was updated with Moreno headed for a narrow win and Lasso alleging fraud.
4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with both candidates claiming victory.