By Alexandra Valencia and Brian Ellsworth
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean economist Andres Arauz on Sunday won a first round victory in the country's presidential election, moving the Andean nation a step closer to socialism following years of austerity measures made more painful by the pandemic.
The 36-year-old protege of former president Rafael Correa advances to an April 11 run-off, but it was still too close to call whether he would face environmental activist Yaku Perez or conservative banker Guillermo Lasso.
The surprisingly strong showing by Perez, whose is running on a platform of banning industrial mining, shakes up an election that has so far been defined by dueling ideologies of social welfare versus free markets.
National Electoral Council Diana Atamaint said the quick count showed Arauz with 31.5% of the vote, Perez with 20.04% and Lasso with 19.97%. The count was based on some 2,400 poll statements from a representative sample of voting centers.
But the council's web-site as of 10 p.m. EST showed that it had only processed around 17% of the votes.
Shortly after the announcement, Perez told reporters that he had won enough votes to enter the second round, and said he was holding a vigil outside the election council's headquarters in Quito to prevent vote manipulation.
"We've come with a plan to hold a vigil, in an active and respectful manner, but to defend the will of the vast majority of Ecuadoreans who see hope for a change," said Perez.
Lasso led a celebratory rally from the country's biggest city, Guayaquil, where supporters shouted "Second round" and "Lasso president."
"When we see 100% of the poll statements reviewed, it will be reconfirmed that we are in the second round," Lasso said.
President Lenin Moreno, a former Correa ally, drove a pro-market agenda in hopes of reviving a sluggish and heavily indebted economy. His efforts sparked an angry backlash, with a proposed fuel hike leading to violent street protests in 2019.
Moreno, who took office in 2017, did not seek a second term.
To avoid the April 11 runoff, Arauz needed more than 50% of valid votes, or 40% total with 10 percentage points more than the runner-up.
A brutal coronavirus outbreak last year left bodies uncollected on the streets of Guayaquil.
Lockdowns around the world slashed fuel demand and prices for oil, Ecuador's main export, battering an economy also reeling from sharp cuts to government spending.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Yury Garcia in Guayaquil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Peter Cooney and Raju Gopalakrishnan)