(CNN)He wouldn't be caught dead wearing a suit. Instead of a tie round his neck, Yaku Pérez wears a Wiphala, a multi-colored flag that symbolizes indigenous identity in the Andes. His long, black hair either hangs freely or is tied in a ponytail, although he has worn a Panama hat on the campaign trail. A long time ago he changed his given name from Carlos to Yaku, which means "water" in Quechua, although he has kept his Spanish last name.
Indigenous leader becomes surprise contender in Ecuador's presidential election
The 51-year-old attorney, human rights activist and environmentalist was the surprise contender Sunday when Ecuador held its first round of a presidential election with a record-breaking 16 candidates.
At the time of writing, Pérez was in a virtual tie for second place with Guillermo Lasso, the 65-year-old banker from Guayaquil who's running for president for a third time in the country of 17 million. Both candidates were close to 20% of the vote.
Andrés Arauz, a former government minister and protégé of former president Rafael Correa (2007 to 2017), who espouses an ideology he calls "21st Century Socialism," was ahead with more than 32%.
"Results from the National Electoral Council put me in second place," Pérez told CNN late Sunday, calling his claim "irrefutable."
"Also, my electoral control team tells me our advantage [over Lasso] is greater and we're in a virtual tie with Arauz," he said, even though, as of this writing, electoral authorities had yet to confirm which two candidates are advancing to the second round.
Earlier polls showed Arauz and Lasso were two most likely candidates to advance to the second round to be held April 11. More than 13 million voters are registered to vote in the Andean country where casting a ballot is mandatory for citizens between the ages of 18 and 65. If Pérez derails what is believed to be Lasso's last chance at the presidency, he will be an underdog beating the odds. If not, he will still be a political force to reckon with. His political movement is poised to become an influential voting bloc in Ecuador's unicameral National Assembly.
"We definitely are on the second round and there's joy and enthusiasm in all of Ecuador. It gives hope to people who see that honesty and reconciliation have started to take shape throughout the country," Pérez told CNN.
Pérez leads the Pachakutik Movement, a political wing of the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). While Arauz tried to scare voters into rejecting a banker and Lasso warns about the evils of socialism, Pérez has sought to appeal to the voters' better nature. "I invite you all to join me in writing a new history, a history where we will punish corruption and breathe honesty in Ecuador," the former prefect of Azuay province (2019-20) recently said in a political ad.
Although he describes himself as leftist, Pérez seems to have benefited from distancing himself from former president Correa, a firebrand populist and highly polarizing socialist who frequently railed against the United States, the business sector and the press.
Pérez says he provides an alternative to Ecuadorians who want an honest government that respects the rights of people and protects the environment, while seeking social justice and caring for the poor. He says he wants to put an end to the polarization that marked Correa's 10 years in power.
"It's not a leftist ideology that persecutes and criminalizes social protest and muzzles journalists, but a leftist ideology that promotes the environment and a sense of community; a leftist ideology that doesn't see nature as an inert thing you can exploit, but a living being that we all belong to," Pérez said. The environmentalist said in a recent interview that he's been jailed four times for fighting for water rights in indigenous communities.
On the other hand, Correa's government was accused of persecuting members of the press. "The greatest adversary [for Ecuador] has been the corrupt and marketeering press," he once said on national television while president.
Correa, 57, has been in exile in Belgium for more than three years. He was convicted on corruption charges in absentia last April and, since he was sentenced to eight years in prison, he would (in theory) be arrested if he returns. As he was convicted, he's also banned from running for political office again. However, from a distance, Correa, an economist with a US education, remains a powerful player in the political life of his country.
At barely 36 years old (his birthday was on Saturday), Arauz was catapulted to the national political stage by being a minister in Correa's government and embracing his mentor's political ideology and governing style.
"Even more important than the return of Rafael Correa, the man, it's the return of policies put in place during his government as well as his government model and his legacy," Arauz said in an interview for EFE, a Spanish news agency. Arauz has also said that he believes Correa's conviction and sentence should be reviewed.
Rosalía Arteaga, who was Ecuador's vice president for several months in 1996 and 1997 and then president for a few days in 1997 (after President Abdalá Bucaram was declared unfit to govern by Congress), explained why Correa's populism, in spite of his conviction and sentence, remains popular with many voters.
"I think that history will tell over the long term how we can define these [government models] that can sometimes look like leftist populism and that strongly appeal to people's feelings and a certain sense of nostalgia for the past that seems prosperous, but that undoubtedly left us significant after-effects like a huge national debt and very few means to get out of this situation," Arteaga told CNN.
Meanwhile, Pérez is already talking about forging coalitions. "We're going to make alliances with all of the sectors that join our fight against corruption and strive for national reconciliation," he told CNN.
Since it's unlikely any candidate will cross the threshold of obtaining more than 40% of the vote while being ten percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Ecuador seems poised to hold a second round on April 11. The winner will be sworn in as the new president of Ecuador on May 24.
If elected, Pérez says he will start by fighting the "many pandemics" Ecuador suffers from: "the corruption pandemic, the violence against women pandemic, and the Covid-19 pandemic that didn't cause the political, financial and moral crisis the country is suffering from."