Ecuadorians cast their votes Sunday in a presidential election that offered a stark choice between a young leftwing economist backed by the country’s former leader Rafael Correa, and a conservative, self-made millionaire ex-banker with a free-market agenda.

The outcome of the vote will go a long way to determining how the country confronts its dire economic situation, which predates the coronavirus pandemic but has been exacerbated by it.

Ecuador is heavily indebted to the IMF, bondholders and Chinese banks. The economy shrank 7.8 per cent last year and the central bank expects it to rebound just 3.1 per cent in 2021.

The frontrunner in most polls was Andrés Arauz, 36, who is bidding to become the youngest president in the country’s history.

Largely unheard of until late last year, he was handpicked by Correa to guide the country leftward again after four years in which current president Lenín Moreno has shunted it closer towards the political centre. Moreno, whose popularity has crashed since his attempt to implement austerity measures and his handling of the pandemic, is not standing for re-election.

Arauz has vowed to renegotiate the $6.5bn lending agreement Ecuador agreed with the IMF last year, saying its terms are too onerous. He has also described as “unconstitutional” a separate agreement reached with bondholders over the terms of the country’s $17.4bn of sovereign debt.

His rival is 65-year-old Guillermo Lasso, a former Coca-Cola executive and ex-CEO of Banco Guayaquil, one of the country’s largest banks. A social conservative and member of the Catholic institution Opus Dei, he has vowed to set Ecuador on a new economic track after 15 years of largely leftist rule.

“Bondholders will be wary of an Arauz victory,” Capital Economics said in a note to clients this week. “He wants to move away from IMF plans for austerity, which would intensify sovereign debt risks. It’s worth noting, though, that Lasso has also criticised parts of the current IMF deal, and his policies may not be enough to restore debt sustainability in Ecuador.”

The campaign has been subdued in recent days because of the pandemic. Quito and other cities are under night-time curfews and large gatherings are banned. However, voting is obligatory, and there are 13.1m people on the electoral rolls out of a population of 17.4m.

“You have to hope that whoever wins will take care of the economy, but they also need to think about the health situation, which is critical at the moment,” said Gabriel Black, a 43-year-old self-employed worker, after casting his ballot in Quito on Sunday morning.

Ecuador was one of the worst-hit nations in the world in the early months of the pandemic. Although it has fared slightly better since then, its infection numbers are picking up again. It has vaccinated only 1.6 per cent of its population, one of the lowest rates on the continent.

Arauz easily won the first round of voting in February with a third of the vote but since then polls suggest the gap has closed somewhat. Lasso has been striving to pull together an “anti-Correa alliance” of disparate forces, arguing that if Arauz wins, it will effectively be a return to power for Correa — who has been in exile in Belgium since leaving office in 2017 and is barred from returning to Ecuador, having been found guilty of corruption.

“There are many layers to the Ecuadorean election but one of the deciding factors will be whether or not the majority of voters are ready to embrace a return to the politics and economics of Correa,” said Norman McKay, Latin America analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The academic trajectories of the two candidates differ starkly.

Arauz has studied at universities in the US, Ecuador and Mexico. A director of Ecuador’s central bank by the age of 24, he describes himself as a post-Keynesian and counts Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz among his heroes.

Lasso worked part-time as a teenager to pay for his school fees but has since built a fortune via a series of business ventures.

“I voted for Lasso,” said Monica Villanon, a 57-year-old bank worker as she left a polling station in Quito. “He isn’t an economist, doesn’t have a PhD but he has experience and a good heart. I can’t say he’s totally convinced me but there’s no other credible option.”