Former Ecuador president Rafael Correa has been in triumphant mood since his protege Andres Arauz topped the polls in Sunday's general election but insisted in an interview with AFP that the 36-year-old is not his puppet.
Leftist economist Arauz leads the first round of voting with 32.10 percent of the vote after almost 99.5 percent of the ballots, meaning he will face either indigenous rights activist Yaaku Perez (20.07 percent), a socialist, or right-wing ex-banker Guillermo Lasso (19.49) in the April 11 second round run-off.
But even if Arauz wins that, Correa is not likely to return to his homeland from exile in Belgium, where his wife was born and where he remains to avoid an eight-year sentence for corruption.
"No, because the electoral victory does not resolve legal problems," Correa told AFP.
"I wake up every day to see they've got a new legal case against me. They've reached 39.
"Neither Al Capone, plus (Joaquin) 'Chapo' Guzman nor (Augusto) Pinochet together had so many cases."
Correa left Ecuador when his presidency ended in 2017 to be succeeded by Lenin Moreno, a former socialist ally who became a bitter rival.
The 57-year-old, who spent 10 years as president, claims he is the victim of political persecution.
Correa was the driving force behind Arauz's campaign and even tried to be his running mate before he was disqualified over his graft conviction.
But he insists Arauz is not simply a puppet.
"When they don't have anything to accuse someone of, they insult them. It's just an ad hominem argument, they cannot refute the arguments, the ideas," Correa said.
"They have to attack the person, but it's vicious because he's young. As he's young, and they underestimate the young, (they say) he's a puppet."
Correa is confident Arauz will triumph in April 11.
"February 7 was a victory for truth and the gratitude of the people, who aren't stupid and can compare the tragedy they're going through now with the prosperity they experienced during my government."
- Socialist run-off? -
Should Perez, 51, hold onto his slim advantage over Lasso, 65, it would pit two socialist candidates in the run-off.
But Correa hit out at Perez, who was arrested and charged with sabotage and terrorism during Correa's presidency for opposing mining extraction projects.
"Who told you Yaku Perez is a leftist candidate," Correa retorted to AFP. "He's the far right candidate.
"Look how he supported the coup d'etat against Evo Morales, he congratulated (Jeanine) Anez."
Morales stood for and won re-election to an unconstitutional fourth term as Bolivia president in October 2019 in a vote an Organization of American States audit found to be fraudulent.
Following three weeks of street protests, Morales resigned and fled into exile, to be replaced by then-Senate deputy Anez, who was the highest ranking government official not to have resigned at that time.
"Yaku Perez is not leftist, please, neither is he indigenous. It's all a sham. Yaku Perez is a great big farce. He's supported by the US embassy."
Correa was a harsh critic of Washington and had a tense relationship with the US during his presidency.
In 2014 he expelled US military officers from the country and canceled a security cooperation program with the Pentagon, also closing a US counter-narcotics base on Ecuadoran soil.
The year before he also barred the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from operating, accusing it of supporting the opposition.
Arauz, though, has said he would seek good relations with Washington.
"And who isn't open to having excellent relations with the US? I would have liked to have them. I think I did," said Correa.
Ex-president Donald "Trump was a troglodyte, individuals are important. I think Joe Biden is a good person. However the US is a machine, so we don't expect much change in the foreign policy towards Latin America. But on a personal level there's obviously a chasm of difference between Joe Biden and Trump."