Correa surges to strong majority in Ecuador vote

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QUITO, Oct 1 (Reuters) Ecuador's President Rafael Correa claimed a strong majority after election for an assembly he says must rewrite the constitution and dissolve the Congress that has battled to resist his leftist proposals.

A powerful mandate in the 130-member national assembly would allow Correa to shore up legislative control and push his proposals for ''21st Century'' socialism and a tighter state grip on the economy, which have spooked Wall Street investors.

Attacking the old guard as a mafia, Correa wants the assembly to introduce sweeping reforms but foes fear he seeks to amass power and follow Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by steering his poor Andean country on anti-free market tack.

''We have won the mother of all battles,'' Correa told hundreds of supporters yesterday waving flags outside his party headquarters in Quito, where he danced and sang with bands and victorious candidates on an outdoor stage.

The official tally may take weeks to complete but Correa said his Alianza Pais party could have won 80 assembly seats -- far more than the 66-seat majority needed to control the constituent body.

An exit poll conducted by a government-linked pollster said its results showed Correa's party had won 77 to 80 seats while an independent quick count put Correa's party at 52 seats with 32 per cent of its samples counted.

Correa, a popular former economy minister who swept into office in January, is seeking to purge the influence of traditional political parties, which are widely blamed for the instability that has ousted three presidents in a decade.

He said his majority bloc would push to dissolve the Congress, but was willing to dialogue with other parties and dismissed opposition fears of any authoritarian reforms.

Minister of Coastal Affairs Ricardo Patino, a close Correa aide, told Reuters earlier the government party could win more than 70 seats and three other ministers confirmed it.

FRAGMENTED OPPOSITION The assembly will debate a draft of constitutional reforms put together by academics. A final version must be approved in a popular referendum after at least six months.

A fragmented opposition has vowed to stop Correa from using the assembly to consolidate presidential powers and tighten his grip on key state institutions like Chavez did soon after he was elected in 1998.

Even without his party winning an outright majority, Correa still could form alliances with smaller, sympathetic left-wing parties to allow him to control the assembly.

His rivals include the brother of former President Lucio Gutierrez, who is popular among the poor despite being ousted during protests in 2005, and banana magnate Alvaro Noboa, who Correa defeated in last year's election.

Still Correa's direction in the assembly remains unclear as government ministers and candidates have given mixed signals on reforms they want. Officials say they have no plans for a nationalization program.

A US-educated former college professor, Correa stepped into the political spotlight more than a year ago when he captured attention with a vow to challenge old elites.

But his drive was marred by clashes with Congress as opposition lawmakers sought to preserve their influence. A court fired 57 lawmakers for blocking the assembly plan and Congress was briefly suspended after they fought with police.

REUTERS MP RK0810

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