QUITO (Reuters) - The murder of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has made some voters more wary of going to the polls on Aug. 20, making an unsettled election even harder to forecast.
Villavicencio, a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime, was killed on Wednesday during an evening campaign event in northern Quito.
The assassination less than two weeks ahead of voting shocked the country, where violent crime and drug trafficking have risen sharply in recent years.
Voters said they were afraid of more bloodshed, with some weighing whether to comply with mandatory voting rules.
"I am scared and I'm thinking about whether to go vote," said Quito manicurist Margarita Alvarado, 45. "If a candidate with bodyguards couldn't be saved ... I'm afraid something violent will happen at the polling station."
"I prefer to pay the fine," Alvarado said, referring to the $45 charge levied on those between 18 and 65 who do not cast ballots. "I can't suffer this distress."
Even before the assassination there was widespread uncertainty about the race.
The candidates between second and fifth place, battling for a spot in a possible October runoff vote, are polling within the margin of error of each other, pollster Cedatos said in a Tuesday post to X, the platform previously known as Twitter.
People planning to turn in protest or blank ballots represented about 25% of voters, the pollster said.
"The assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio complicates what is already an atypical and complex political crisis in Ecuador," said Verisk Maplecroft chief analyst Jimena Blanco and lead Americas analyst Eileen Gavin in a note.
"With some 40% of voters undecided, current polling data was already unlikely to be very accurate; the assassination now adds a new source of unpredictability to the electoral outcome," they added.
Villavicencio's supporters, about 8% of respondents in recent polls, may not fall neatly into another camp. Despite his union ties, Villavicencio was sharply opposed to leading leftist candidate Luisa Gonzalez.
"On paper, the most obvious beneficiary of Villavicencio's murder would be Jan Topic ... who is running a tough-on-crime campaign," said consultancy Teneo in a note. "However, Topic ... has limited name recognition and does not appear to have made much of an impact."
Despite the suspension of campaigning by two opponents and widespread condemnation of the murder, politicians lost little time in trading barbs.
Villavicencio's party denounced "political use" of his death and some supporters lobbed criticism at former President Rafael Correa, whom Villavicencio clashed with as an investigative journalist.
Gonzalez, the Correa-backed candidate who leads the race with just below 30% voter support, took aim at current President Guillermo Lasso, accusing him of ties to the Albanian mafia, an allegation Lasso has always denied.
Along with driving up voter abstention, Paulina Recalde of polling firm Perfiles de Opinion, said the violence and its fallout could eventually sow doubt in the electoral process.
That could worsen the political crisis that led Lasso to call an early election, Recalde said, "if political forces don't curb this rhetoric of blaming each other."
The electoral contest will head to a second round on Oct. 15 if no candidate wins more than 50% of valid votes or more than 40% if 10 points ahead of their nearest rival.
The winner will serve until May 2025 – a truncated term that ensures another heated contest soon after voters put this one behind them.
"Despite being a candidate, Fernando was a regular person like anyone else and just like he was attacked, anyone could be, in a market, at a school, in a church," said voter Santiago Avilez, 37.
"Anything could happen, any disaster (in the elections)," he added. "We have to vote with conscience."
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Tito Correa in Quito; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Brad Haynes and David Gregorio)