Bolivia votes in crossroads election as socialists eye return

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians lined up to vote on Sunday in a crossroads election many hope can restore stability after a voided ballot last year plunged the Andean nation into political crisis and ended the near 14-year reign of leftist Evo Morales.

Leading the race are Luis Arce, the frontrunner from Morales’ socialist party who would tip the country back to the left, and main challenger Carlos Mesa, a centrist who served as president in the early 2000s. Polls show Arce ahead but suggest a second round run-off would be needed.

“The vote is set to be the most important since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1982,” said Carlos Valverde, a political analyst.

A last-minute decision by Bolivia’s electoral authority not to release fast-count results on Sunday night, citing issues with the system, has added a layer of tension. Exit polls and partial official results will be published, but it is not clear when the final numbers would be in.

“It’s not ideal, but we understand (the decision) perfectly,” Mesa told reporters after casting his vote in the morning in the outskirts of the capital, La Paz.

Morales said the decision was “highly worrying”, while Arce said it was an unwise move that could “generate doubts” about the count.

The vote, carried out in person despite the coronavirus pandemic, will be a test of the left’s clout in Latin America. Morales was an iconic and long-lasting figure in a wave of leftist presidents in the region over the last two decades.

Bolivia erupted in violence late last year when Morales sought a fourth term in a disputed election that has since been annulled. The violence cost at least 30 lives, sparked food shortages and forced Morales to resign after almost 14 years in power. Since then the country has been led by an unelected interim president, Jeanine Áñez.

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On Sunday, residents of La Paz, a city starkly divided by class and race, were voting peacefully but faced long lines meant to avoid overcrowding inside voting locations.

Many said they worried the election result could lead to more violence, especially if Arce’s vote count falls short. Arce told local media this week the only way his rival could win is “through fraud.”

“I hope everything turns out peacefully and that the next government can also provide the solutions that all Bolivians are hoping for,” said David Villarroel, voting in La Paz.

The socialist stronghold of El Alto, a center of last year’s violence, is seen as particularly volatile. The city was built by indigenous Bolivians atop a mountain overlooking La Paz and has grown to dwarf the capital city in population.

The election was originally scheduled to take place in May, but was postponed several times due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in La Paz; Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis

Source: Reuters

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