Bolivia’s Evo Morales features prominently in Sunday’s election


He’s not on the ballot, but former President Evo Morales looms large in Bolivia’s highly anticipated national elections Sunday.The socialist brandon and longtime American adversary remains in exile in neighboring Argentina after stepping down under military pressure following a controversial vote a year ago, as he sought a controversial fourth term .

But his political party, which presents the former Minister of the Economy of Morales as his presidential candidate, is leading in the polls ahead of the new election in this landlocked Andean nation of 11 million inhabitants.

Sunday’s contest drew poll watchers from around the world. Some call the election – which also includes contests for the national legislature – the largest in the country’s modern history.

“This is a huge moment for Bolivia, precisely because of what happened in the elections last year,” said John Walsh, analyst in the Washington office on Latin America. “Everyone sees enormous, even existential, stakes for the country. … And if people are incited to protest and violence because they think the elections are being stolen from them, it could get very ugly, very quickly.

Authorities are on high alert, fearing that a close or contested vote could spark further upheaval in the streets.

An economic recession – the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and falling commodity prices – has prompted many Bolivians to yearn for the return of so-called “Evonomics,” the amalgamation of social benefits, public works projects and a generally hands-off approach to business This has seen the Bolivian economy grow steadily for much of Morales’ almost 14-year tenure. High commodity prices, especially natural gas, have fueled the relative economic prosperity of a nation that has long been among the poorest and most politically unstable in Latin America.

While his detractors denounce him as a left-wing autocrat, for many Bolivians, Morales’ mandate holds stark contrast to the country’s current difficult times.

“With Evo’s government we were much better off, there was economic security, not like now,” said Rosa Machaca, 43, a fruit seller in the streets of the capital. “Now there are families who do not have enough to eat.”

Sunday’s election is an official resumption of last year’s contested ballot, which ultimately saw Morales resign even though he had the most votes in his candidacy for a fourth consecutive term. A court ruling had allowed him to run even though voters in a nationwide referendum had said he should not be able to run for a fourth term.

The Bolivian military high command pushed him to step down after weeks of street protests over alleged electoral fraud, which he denied. Morales called the result a U.S.-backed coup, but Washington has denied any involvement in his resignation.

A right-wing lawmaker, Jeanine Añez, succeeded Morales as the country’s interim president, a move Morales called illegal. Añez held up a Bible as he took the presidential oath, a setback against left-wing secular leaders in Morales. The Trump administration applauded the departure of Morales, an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez who rose from humble origins to the head of the union representing producers of the country’s coca leaf, the raw ingredient of cocaine .

Lawmakers subsequently overturned last year’s vote results and scheduled a new election.

But Añez, a mainstay of the country’s economic elite, has never been able to gain electoral traction beyond his right-wing base. With the economy falling, she dropped out of the race last month.

Today, the interim president – accused of illegal repression of the pro-Morales camp – adopted what is called here the strategy “anyone but MAS”, after the Spanish acronym of political bloc of Morales, Movement towards Socialism.

“We need to responsibly vote for the most advantageous candidates, those who defeat Evo Morales,” Añez said this week.

Morales’ determination to run for office last year alienated even many admirers worried about the possible aspirations of president for life. But Morales maintains a strong base of support, especially among the indigenous, poor and working-class multitudes who make up the majority of Bolivians.

Appeals from Añez and other opponents of Morales did not quash the appeal of the ex-president, who in 2005 became the first indigenous Bolivian elected to the presidency.

According to polls, the current main presidential candidate is Luis Arce, 57, a former banker who served as Morales’ economy minister.

In his campaign close this week , Arce took to the streets of El Alto, a working-class and largely indigenous suburb of the capital, a stronghold of Morales.

“We went through a bloody coup, a nightmare in which people suffered pain, mourning and hunger,” Arce told the crowd. “Racism, discrimination and arrogance have returned. … They thought they would kill MAS, but in Alto we say, “Here we are! Living!’ ”

Opponents see Arce as a puppet of Morales, who, even in exile, remains the leader of MAS, the country’s largest unified political force.

While the polls in Bolivia can be erratic, a recent poll showed Arce to lead with about a third of the presidential vote in a field of five candidates. His closest challenger is former president Carlos Mesa, 67, of the center-right Citizen Community party, with nearly a quarter of the vote, according to polling firm Ciesmori.

Bolivian electoral law states that a presidential candidate must win a majority, or at least collect 40% of the vote with a 10-point lead over his nearest challenger, to be declared the winner of the first round.

Mesa is counting on the support of the many Bolivians alienated by the ravages of last year’s vote, both on Sunday and in a run-off ballot in November, in which MAS opponents would likely unite.

The pandemic has forced several postponements of the elections scheduled for Sunday.

“I just hope that democracy triumphs in these elections,” said Johnny Antezana, 38, a businessman here. “We have suffered an institutional crisis. And I don’t think people can handle more uncertainty.

From his exile in Argentina, where he was granted political refugee status, Morales has expressed confidence in a resounding triumph for his political protégé, Arce. He promised to return to Bolivia “the next day” after his ally’s projected victory, despite the arrest warrants against him for sedition and terrorism.

“I am sure, brothers and sisters, that you will not abandon me,” Morales said last month in a message to his fellow Bolivians. “We’re going to win again.”

Times reporter McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special envoy Padilla from La Paz.


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