Bolivians tomorrow are to vote for a new president and for the first time in two decades the name of former Bolivian president Evo Morales will not be on the ballot paper.
Yet not only does the shadow of the landlocked country’s first ever indigenous president loom large over the poll, he is the reason it is taking place at all.
Morales stood for, and won, an unconstitutional fourth term in an election last year that sparked weeks of protests against his victory.
An Organization of American States audit subsequently found clear evidence of fraud and Morales resigned before fleeing into exile.
Now living in Argentina, he is barred from standing, but his hand-picked successor as the Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate, Luis Arce, leads opinion polls.
According to analysts Eurasia Group, “polls point to a very close race with ... Arce within reach of a first-round victory.”
A Ciesmori poll released last week put Arce ahead with 30.7 percent of votes compared with his main challenger, former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa, who was on 24.7 percent.
To win outright in the first round, Arce would need to poll 40 percent with a 10-point advantage over his nearest challenger.
“While the margin will be close, we remain of the view Mesa will take the race to a 29 November runoff, which he would be favored to win,” Eurasia Group analyst for Brazil and Bolivia Filipe Gruppelli Carvalho said.
Unless Arce wins in the first round, the other five candidates are expected to endorse Mesa in a second-round runoff.
Mesa has already been boosted by the withdrawal from the race of interim Bolivian President Jeanine Anez, who quit a month ago after dropping to fourth in opinion polls.
After last year’s poll, the protests were sparked by a deep feeling that the election had been stolen.
However, this time will be different, said Salvador Romero, who heads the nation’s top electoral body.
“We’re going to have a clean, secure and trustworthy election day,” Romero said, adding that this time the result would “faithfully reflect the popular will expressed at the polls.”
It has been a particularly polarized election campaign, and the vote has twice been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The interim government accused Morales and Arce of “terrorism and genocide” over a 12-day roadblock movement in August that saw hospitals complain that they were unable to receive urgent medical supplies needed to treat people infected with the novel coronavirus.
Morales constantly rails against his opponents on social media, accusing them of being “putschists.”
Arce is also being investigated over alleged misappropriation of public funds during his tenure as minister of economy and finance under Morales.
The former leader is himself under investigation, accused of “statutory rape and trafficking” over alleged relationships with underage girls.
Yet the country’s devastated economy is the main issue facing the candidates.
Arce was widely credited with Bolivia’s “economic miracle” during Morales’s presidency from 2006 to last year, during which the country experienced more than 4.0 percent annual growth while poverty rates tumbled from 60 percent to 37 percent, according to official figures.
“Bolivia needs to recover the path of stability and economic growth with social justice,” Arce said.
Mesa has dismissed the success of that period, saying that the country benefitted from high primary materials prices rather than expert economic management.
Critics of Morales say that his failure to implement structural economic reforms meant that growth was unsustainable.
Mesa has promised to improve economic diversification, but has ruled out reversing Morales’ nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry.
The economic climate is troublesome and the new president faces financial restrictions.
“We’re very close to a serious economic crisis,” said Roberto Laserna, an economist and president of the Millennium Foundation.
As well as choosing a new president, the 7.3 million eligible voters are to elect a new Congress, both chambers of which are currently controlled by the MAS.
Although it is likely to remain the largest party, the MAS is not expected to win more than half of the seats in either chamber.
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