Morales, who is banned from driving this time, is looking from Argentina, while his former finance minister, front-runner Luis Arce, 57, faces two main rivals, the centrist former president Carlos Mesa, 67, and the right-wing nationalist Luis Camacho, 41. Fear has been loud for a repeat of the violence last year, which saw bullies burning ballot papers and clashes in the streets, but the early hours of voting Sunday seemed largely calm.
In a surprise decision on Saturday, Bolivia’s electoral court announced that it would not release the traditional rapid projection of the result as originally expected on Sunday. The court said it would instead wait to release results until all ballots were counted or tallies showed an undeniable trend. The decision, taken from what it described as an abundance of caution in a highly polarized race, came when both sides went to the polls claiming the other would cheat.
Private exit polls were still expected to be released, providing insight into an election considered a measure of the strength of democracy in Latin America. But the election council̵
Arce condemned the decision to withhold partial results. He said that his party, the movement against socialism, or MAS, conducted its own census and would prioritize this result.
“This is a step back in the process of transparency,” he told reporters after casting his vote Sunday.
But Mesa called the decision understandable, as the release of partial votes had triggered violence last year.
“It’s not ideal, but we understand,” he said. “We want to be patient, and we ask people to be patient.”
Analysts warned that a prolonged delay could create tensions.
“It adds to the uncertainty and anxiety,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba. “You now have a period of up to a week where anything can happen.”
On Sunday, polls showed Arce was close to the threshold needed for a victory in the first round. To avoid runoff, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote or at least 40 percent with a 10-point victory margin.
Analysts say Mesa, who comes in second in the polls, will be the favorite in another round of voting next month, provided opposition to the Socialists gather around him. Camacho has followed both men in the polls by significant margins.
Carla Nina Martínez, a 30-year-old nurse who voted in a rural area just searching for La Paz, described herself as a longtime left-wing supporter. But she said she changed her voice this year to support Mesa.
“I appreciate some things that President Evo Morales did. Everything went very well, ”she said. “But in the end, as always, politics ends up being corrupt.”
A covid-19 survivor, she said she blamed the Anez government for a poorly executed coronavirus plan.
“During the high points of the pandemic, we were never provided with personal protective equipment and health personnel were eventually infected,” she said.
Santos Vallejo, 52, said the country’s poor economy amid the coronavirus pandemic led him to vote for the Socialists.
Under socialist governments, “we had jobs,” he said outside a polling station in El Alto, a socialist stronghold near La Paz. “I think MAS will win because we, the poor, are with them.”
More than 10,000 troops were called out to maintain peace. In a statement clearly aimed at the Socialists, Áñez’s influential Interior Minister Arturo Murillo on Saturday led a show of force with military soldiers and armored vehicles on the streets of La Paz. Murillo said the effort was intended to prevent the “return of dictators” – a clear reference to Morales, who was democratically elected three times before his controversial bid for a fourth term last year.
Arce has tried to distance himself from Morales. In an interview last week with The Washington Post, Arce said Morales would need the justice system to defend himself against “numerous” charges if he returned.
“We believe that our comrade Evo has the right, if he so wishes, to return to the country and defend himself,” Arce said.
Faiola reported from Miami. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.