By Alexandra Valencia and Julia Symmes Cobb
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadoreans go to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president and legislature they hope will lead the country out of a spiral of violence and economic troubles, after a campaign darkened by bloodshed.
Candidates have pledged to fight sharp increases in crime, which the current government blames on drug gangs, and improve the struggling economy, whose woes have caused an uptick in unemployment and migration.
Security has taken center stage in the contest since the Aug. 9 murder of anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a former investigative journalist and lawmaker, who was gunned down while leaving a campaign event.
Six suspects, all Colombians police say belong to criminal gangs, are being held in the murder. Another suspect died of injuries sustained in the shootout.
Other candidates have reported attacks against them, though in several cases police have said that violence was not directed at the hopefuls themselves.
"It makes me so ashamed that the country is going this way and deteriorating because of bad governments," said Monica Barba, 47, who said she hoped the party of former President Rafael Correa would win.
Luisa Gonzalez, a protegee of Correa, led polling before Villavicencio's murder with about 30% of voting intention.
She has promised to free up $2.5 billion from international reserves to bolster Ecuador's economy, as well as bring back social programs implemented by Correa - who has since been convicted of corruption - during his decade in power.
Pro-market candidate Otto Sonnenholzner has hardened his discourse since Villavicencio's murder, repeatedly promising that criminals who use violence will be shot by police under his government.
Law and order candidate Jan Topic, who says he was a member of the French Foreign Legion, has pledged to solve security problems first, while Daniel Noboa, son of prominent banana businessman and former candidate Alvaro Noboa, has centered his campaign on job creation.
Environmentalist Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez has said he would revise mining concessions that do not comply with environmental and social rules and ask creditors for breathing room.
"The new president must propose things that are real, not just words," said university student Menaly Luge, 18, who is voting for Villavicencio's Construye party. "Our country is suffering an economic crisis and so much crime... We need more opportunities for young people, we don't want to migrate."
Christian Zurita, who replaced Villavicencio, has promised to better equip the police and enshrine intelligence protocols to fight crime, using international loans to shore up social programs.
Villavicencio's name and photo will appear on the ballots, which were printed before his murder.
Also on Sunday's ballot are two environmental referendums - both expected to pass - which could block mining in a forest near Quito and development of an oil block in the Amazon.
The 13 million-strong electorate will also choose 137 members of the national assembly. Voting is mandatory for those between 18 and 65 and authorities have said 100,000 police and military will guard polling places.
A candidate needs 50% of the vote, or 40% if they are 10 points ahead of their nearest rival, to win in a first round. Otherwise, a second round will take place on Oct. 15.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Julia Symmes Cobb; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin; Editing by William Mallard)