Former Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa is not on the ballot in his country's close presidential runoff on Sunday, yet remains a key figure in the election despite living in exile in Belgium.
Correa's protege, leftist candidate Andres Arauz is up against right-wing contender Guillermo Lasso in a race that is neck and neck, according to opinion polls.
That said, the contest is not so much about Arauz versus Lasso but rather about "Correism versus anti-Correism," political scientist Esteban Nicholls of Simon Bolivar University told AFP.
Arauz won the first-round vote in February with 32.72 percent, more than 12 percentage points higher than Lasso, but not enough to win outright and avoid a runoff.
The last poll by Market predicted a "technical draw" Sunday with 36-year-old Arauz garnering 50 percent and Lasso, age 65, getting 49 percent.
The election is "totally uncertain," Market director Blasco Penaherrera told AFP, adding that "this chapter isn't closed."
However, Penaherrera said that former banker Lasso's "growth" is "vastly superior" to that of economist Arauz.
- Uncertain indigenous vote -
Lasso, who heads the Creating Opportunities party, scraped into the runoff by less than half a percentage point ahead of indigenous candidate Yaku Perez, who contested the result and claimed to have been the victim of fraud.
It took weeks for Lasso's second-place victory to be confirmed. Ahead of the runoff, electoral officials have decided to abandon the usual rapid count to avoid potentially misleading results.
Socialist Perez, whose Pachakutik indigenous movement is the second largest bloc in parliament, picked up around 20 percent of the vote in the first round.
Pachakutik has refused to back either candidate in the second round, leaving uncertainty over which way its supporters will turn.
However, "it's hard to see these votes going to Lasso and easier to see them going Arauz's way," said political scientist Santiago Basabe, of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences.
The number of undecided voters following the chaotic first round was around 35 percent but that's since shrunk to eight percent.
"There was a disappointment with the electoral process, with the candidates, with politics" pitting Correism against anti-Correism, said Penaherrera.
But this "really changed in just a few weeks."
Basabe believes Arauz, who represents the Union for Hope coalition, has the edge due to his first round victory and the backing of the popular Correa, a leftist two-time former president currently living in Belgium to evade a conviction for corruption.
"While either could win, it seems to me that Arauz has more chance," said Basabe.
And if that happens, "the first point in the (new) government agenda will be the return of Correa, undeniably."
Correa has fallen out with his former vice president, Lenin Moreno, the beleaguered current president whose term ends on May 24.
Correa has been mired in numerous corruption investigations, including the one that saw him convicted in absentia.
- 'No chance of reforms' -
The next president will inherit an unenviable situation: Ecuador has registered more than 340,000 cases of Covid-19 and more than 17,000 deaths among its population of 17.4 million.
Arauz has accused Moreno of neglect and mismanaging the pandemic response.
Ecuador's dolarized economy has been badly hit and shrunk by 7.8 percent in 2020, although experts expect it to grow 3.5 percent this year.
In that respect, "there's a feeling that to a certain extent, it doesn't matter who wins, we just need an immediate change," said Pablo Romero, an analyst at Salesiana University.
Should Lasso win he would face a tough job with Arauz's leftist coalition the largest bloc in Congress.
"There will be permanent tension with the executive. There's almost no chance of the reforms the country needs."