Ecuadoreans cast their votes in constitutional referendum and local elections, in Latacunga
Leonidas Iza, leader of Ecuador's indigenous organization CONAIE, casts his vote in a constitutional referendum and local elections, in Latacunga, Ecuador on February 5, 2023. Reuters

Ecuadoreans looked likely to reject a government-backed referendum to allow extraditions for drug crimes and other charges, preliminary results on Monday showed, while voters in the country's two largest cities backed mayoral candidates from embattled former President Rafael Correa's political movement.

The results reinforced a difficult scenario for current conservative President Guillermo Lasso, who has struggled to contain rising insecurity, protests by indigenous groups that have hurt the economy, and widespread violence in prisons.

The extradition referendum, one of eight reforms on the ballot, would have allowed Ecuadorean suspects to be sent abroad for trial on drugs and weapons charges, among others, a strategy touted by Lasso to reduce crime which his government has blamed on the trans-national narcotics trade.

Though the practice would be new for Ecuador, it is common for Latin American countries like Colombia and Mexico to accede to extradition requests from the United States and other nations.

But the 'no' vote on the measure was leading with 53.8%, according to the electoral authority, versus 46.1% for the 'yes' side with nearly 47% of ballot boxes counted.

Another reform to give the attorney general more autonomy to choose prosecutors also looked unlikely to pass, with 58.4% of votes against and 41.6% in favor after 40% of the count had been tabulated.

A proposal to reduce the number of lawmakers in the 137-seat assembly to around 100 members was also likely headed for defeat, with the 'no' vote at nearly 55%.

Lasso, whose popularity is hovering around 20%, has clashed repeatedly with the opposition-controlled body, where some lawmakers tried to oust him during demonstrations that engulfed Ecuador last year.

Voters in Quito, the capital, elected Pabel Munoz, a member of Correa's political movement, as mayor, while Correista candidate Aquiles Alvarez won in Guayaquil, ousting the Social Christian party after three decades of control of the mayoral position.

"The strong performance of the Correismo in the regional elections together with what appears to be a government loss in the referendum, if confirmed, leaves a very challenging political scenario for the Lasso administration," J.P. Morgan said in a note.

Referendum defeats are expected to further weaken Lasso's eroded political capital, the note said, adding that renewed social protests could be destabilizing.

Correa, who left office in 2017 and lives in Belgium, faces eight years in prison in Ecuador on a corruption conviction.