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FILE PHOTO: Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno holds a traditional Andean stick during a news conference in Cochasqui, Ecuador, May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

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By Alexandra Valencia

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadoreans on Sunday vote in a referendum on whether to prevent unlimited presidential re-election, with polls indicating the motion will likely pass and block former leftist President Rafael Correa from returning to power.

President Lenin Moreno proposed the referendum to change the constitution in what was widely seen as a bid to halt Correa, his former mentor, from running for office again amid a bitter political dispute.

Moreno, a wheelchair-bound former vice president elected last year, says the change would strengthen the oil-rich Andean nation's democracy.

"Corruption sets in when you have only one government that thinks it will stay on forever," said Moreno during a campaign event this week in a low-income neighbourhood of the mountainous capital Quito.

Moreno has a roughly 69 percent popularity level, according to pollster Cedatos, thanks to his conciliatory style and his crackdown on alleged graft during Correa's administration.

"I'm voting 'yes' for a change," said lawyer Andrea Ruales, 27, in Quito. "Before, Correa decided. And now, they're asking the people."

Around 59 percent of Ecuadoreans plan to vote in favour of limiting re-election, versus some 27 percent who plan to vote against it, according to pollster Opinion Publica Ecuador. A handful of other surveys found a similar trend.

Correa, however, says Moreno is a "traitor" seeking to annihilate him politically.

While he has been living in Brussels with his Belgian wife since leaving office, Correa has returned several times to whip up support during campaign stops across Ecuador.

"They're trying to destroy everything that has to do with Correa," he told Reuters in an interview, flanked by several lawmakers who still call him "president."

The economist remains popular in some quarters for his welfare policy and an oil-fuelled boom at the start of his decade-long presidency.

"There have been no changes with Moreno. He's an ungrateful traitor because he does not recognise everything Correa did," said security guard Jose Delgado, 58.

But many Ecuadoreans are tired of Correa's confrontational style and want to turn over a new leaf.

Should Moreno score a resounding win on Sunday, he could shed some Correa-era cabinet members and feel emboldened to push through economic reforms.

A loss could dampen his presidency as Correa would likely seek office again.

The vote includes six other questions on issues ranging from new anti-corruption measures to limiting mining and oil production in environmentally-sensitive areas. Results are expected around 8 p.m. local time (0100 GMT).

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Reuters