By Brian Ellsworth
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadoreans voted for president on Sunday and were almost certain to give incumbent Rafael Correa a new term to advance an agenda of socialist economics and an expansion of state power that critics call authoritarian.
Victory for Correa would cheer the leftist ALBA bloc of Latin American and Caribbean nations at a time when the group's indisputable leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is struggling to recover from cancer.
Foreign investors will watch a new Correa term closely for signs he will woo cash from abroad more vigorously to raise stagnant oil production and kick-start the nascent mining industry after years of confrontation with oil companies and bondholders.
Heavy state spending to expand access to healthcare, pave decrepit roads and build schools have given the combative economist a strong base of support among the South American nation's poor.
Opinion polls show Correa leading his closest rival by more than 35 percentage points.
"The beauty of an electoral democracy is that citizens have their future in their hands. So it's time to vote," he said after voting in Quito after polls opened at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT).
Critics say Correa is a despot who tolerates no dissent and is intent on amassing power. But the opposition's inability to unite behind a single candidate - seven opposition aspirants are running - has helped give Correa a comfortable lead.
Former banker Guillermo Lasso is Correa's nearest rival in the polls but surveys show him with only between 9 percent and 15 percent of the vote.
Correa has built an image of nationalist man-of-the-people through theatrical confrontation with oil companies and Wall Street investors.
The only Ecuadorean president in the past 20 years to complete a full term in office, Correa is admired for bringing political stability to a nation where leaders had been frequently toppled by violent street protests or military coups.
"Correa has done lots of good things, like improving the roads, education and the health system. If he wins, he has to tackle crime," said Victor Jimenez, 55, an auto mechanic, outside a voting station in the coastal city of Guayaquil.
Local media and government officials said there had been no incidents during the first few hours of voting.
Polls close at 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT).
Correa has scheduled a news conference for 5:15 p.m. EST and the electoral authority at 7 p.m. EST will release an official "quick count" based on 30 percent of the ballots cast.
The Perfiles de Opinion polling firm recently showed Correa with 62 percent support. To avoid a second round of voting, he needs to win at least 50 percent of the vote or 40 percent with a lead of 10 percentage points over the runner-up.
Correa, 49, has ruled since 2007. In a new four-year term, he would face the challenge of securing financing for government spending after a 2008 debt default and wooing investors to boost oil output and kick-start the mining industry.
Opposition leaders call Correa a dictator in the making who is quashing free speech through hostile confrontation with media and squelching free enterprise with heavy taxation and constant regulatory changes.
"I've voted for Lasso because he's offered to create jobs, lower taxes and (better) security, and that's what people need," said Marco Apolo, 58, outside a voting station in Quito.
Lasso has called Correa's "Citizens' Revolution" a fast-food menu of unsuccessful economics copied from Ecuador's era of military rulers and leftist governments like Venezuela's Chavez.
"He'll have to explain how this development model is revolutionary if it's a copy of the dictatorship of the 1970s and depends on high prices for oil that is mortgaged to China in exchange for loans," Lasso said at his final rally.
Correa spent weeks on the campaign trail, from indigenous villages of the Andean highlands to urban slums in the bustling port city of Guayaquil, singing and dancing to play up an image of youthful energy.
An avid cyclist, Correa filmed one campaign spot showing him changing out of a sharp suit into biking clothes and then riding his bike over mountain peaks and past tropical fishing villages to show the improvement of roads under his leadership.
Even some Correa supporters acknowledge they find him brash and domineering. Sharp-tempered and quick to pick fights, he has been in almost constant conflict with opposition media and on several occasions sued critical reporters and newspapers.
He also put himself on a collision course with the United States last year by letting WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange take refuge at Ecuador's embassy in London and later offering him asylum.
Opposition leaders say the key to Correa's longevity has been revamping state institutions to suit his needs and placing allies in key posts. In 2011, he called a referendum on a justice system overhaul, bypassing a hostile Congress in a move critics say boosted his control over the courts.
Correa has relied heavily on financing from China after a 2008 default on $3.2 billion in bonds left the country locked out of foreign credit markets. Lasso promises to cut taxes and spur entrepreneurship if he wins.
Other opposition candidates include banana magnate and five-time presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa, and former President Lucio Gutierrez, who was ousted in a 2005 coup.
Ecuadoreans also vote for a new legislature on Sunday, through the results are not expected to be in for several days. The Alianza Pais party also hopes to win more than 50 percent of the seats, up from about 42 percent now.
A major test will come this year in negotiations with Canada's Kinross to develop a large gold deposit.
(Additional reporting by Jose Llangari and Eduardo Garcia in Quito and Yuri Garcia in Guayaquil; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)
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