GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (Reuters) - Carried on the shoulders of supporters, the mayor of Ecuador’s largest city led a march of tens of thousands on Thursday, cementing his new role as the top opposition threat to President Rafael Correa.
Jaime Nebot has leveraged his popularity in the business city of Guayaquil to challenge the leftist Correa’s plans for greater state control over the economy.
Thousands of backers waving the city’s blue and white flag swarmed the streets of the sultry port city chanting “Long live Guayaquil, dammit,” and “Down with Correa.”.
“As long as you are alive and I am alive, he will never push us around,” Nebot shouted to the crowd. “We will not be guinea pigs of a failed experiment.”
One in six Ecuadoreans live in Guayaquil, the country’s richest city. It is also Correa’s birthplace and has become a key political battleground for the ally of Venezuela’s left-wing president, Hugo Chavez.
Last week, Correa gathered a similar crowd of about 40,000 cheering supporters in Guayaquil to mark his first year in office, in which he has wrested most institutional powers from a fragmented opposition but also seen his popularity ebb.
The U.S.-trained economist’s popularity dropped to 57 percent this month, near the lowest point of his presidency, with pollsters saying more voters have been turned off by his abrasive style and a flagging economy.
Nebot, who has less influence outside Guayaquil, says he has no plans to run for president if a new assembly rewriting a constitution calls presidential and legislative elections as early as this year.
He is expected, however, to run for mayor again and will use his popularity in Ecuador’s coastal region to call on voters to reject Correa.
Nebot agrees with Correa’s promises to overhaul Ecuador’s foreign debt and renegotiate oil contracts but complained the president seeks too much power.
“If the government does something good I do not oppose that but if they seek to destroy Guayaquil and if the president wants to become an emperor ... then I will fiercely oppose that,” he told Reuters while cruising the city on Thursday.
In almost eight years as mayor, the two-time presidential contender is credited with turning Guayaquil into a model of urban renewal with wide highways and towering glass buildings.
Nebot, who says he is a distant relative of Correa, has a 90 percent popularity rating in Guayaquil and is the best-known political figure in Ecuador after the president, according to pollster Informe Confidencial.
“Nebot could take votes from Correa in upcoming elections ... hurting his influence over a new Congress and in local governments,” said Gandhy Espinosa of the polling firm.
Nebot’s Christian Social Party and other traditional parties have lost much of their influence and won few seats in a powerful new assembly set up to rewrite the constitution.
With the power of other opposition leaders waning, Correa has focused his attacks on Nebot, saying he is part of a political old guard he dismisses as corrupt.
Correa compared him to a shantytown hit-man and Nebot fired back by saying that Correa is one of the “three stooges” along with Venezuela’s Chavez and Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales.
“Correa’s constant attacks have pushed Nebot into the ring,” said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with Eurasia Group of political risk consultants. “He is the opposition’s great white hope.”
Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray