Election officials count ballots after polls closed during the presidential election, in Quito, Ecuador Feb 7, 2021. [Photo/Agencies] QUITO - Polling stations in Ecuador opened at 7:00 am local time (1200 GMT) on Sunday, beginning the process that will bring in a new government and renew the National Assembly (Congress), in an election marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. The process began after an inauguration ceremony at the National Electoral Council (CNE) in Quito, with the presence of Vice President Maria Alejandra Munoz representing President Lenin Moreno. The president of the CNE, Diana Atamaint, inaugurated the event at the headquarters of the organization and called for peaceful elections. "Today, we come to the most important day of the exercise of democracy ... Today, Ecuador wins and democracy wins. Good luck to the candidates," said Atamaint. The official affirmed that organizing the elections during the pandemic has been a "challenge", but that the necessary sanitary conditions have been created to "care for the health of Ecuadorians and for democracy". Ecuador is the first country in Latin America to hold elections in 2021 in the midst of a pandemic. Atamaint also thanked the participation of the 260 international observers and the more than 2,400 national observers who will monitor the elections. At the ceremony, Vice President Munoz affirmed that these elections are "crucial" since they are taking place in a different context, "because we have not experienced a pandemic like the current one and the consequences that not all Ecuadorians are included in the short-, medium-, and long-term solutions could be dire". "Today, the weight of the hope of 17 million Ecuadorians moves us to clothe ourselves with that power that we have thanks to democracy, the power to choose who we are going to entrust with the administration of the public," she said. A total of 13,099,150 Ecuadorians, including 410,239 living abroad, are eligible to vote in the elections, and 38,808 polling stations will be open until 5:00 pm local time (2200 GMT). Ecuadorians will have a choice from a record 16 pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates, with 137 seats in the National Assembly and five seats in the Andean Parliament also up for grabs. Progressive candidate Andres Arauz, backed by former President Rafael Correa; former banker and conservative candidate Guillermo Lasso, who is participating for the third time; and indigenous leader Yaku Perez are favorites in the presidential election. To win the first round, a candidate must get at least 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point lead over the second candidate. Arauz expressed on Sunday his confidence in his victory in the general elections. "Today is a historic day! Triumph in a single round is only possible if we go out to defend the vote of Ecuadorians and are vigilant that the popular will is fulfilled," the politician wrote on Twitter. Lasso cast his vote on Sunday, announcing that he would go on to a second round of elections, scheduled for April 11. "What I can tell you is that there will be a second round and we will be in the second round. In the second round, I will see whoever the Ecuadorian people decide on, but on April 11, the victory will be overwhelming in favor of change," Lasso said. Faced with the challenge of guaranteeing voter attendance, the CNE has implemented biosafety protocols to reduce the risk of contagion, with elections and health measures overseen by the 85,000 members of the armed forces and police. Voters are being encouraged to vote in shifts according to the last digit of their ballot number. In Ecuador, voting is mandatory for citizens between 18 and 65 years old.