The result can have far-reaching consequences throughout the region. Bolivian elections are seen as a referendum on Latin American socialism and a measure of the strength of democracy in a part of the world that has become more and more disillusioned with it.
Perhaps above all, Bolivia presents a window into a deeply polarized society in which elections are fought in an ugly, threatening language and conducted with seemingly existential efforts.
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The particular choice to choose a permanent successor to Morales was delayed several times in the midst of Bolivia’s coronavirus outbreak.
Arce, a 57-year-old economist, is trying to regain the Bolivian presidency of Morales’ movement against socialism or MAS. Arce’s biggest opponents, the centrist former president Carlos Mesa (67) and the right-wing nationalist Luis Fernando Camacho (41), have embraced a common refrain: For the sake of Bolivia’s future, the Socialists must be stopped.
“This is a vote that has to do with democratic consciousness,” Mesa said this week on Bolivian television. “I have an opponent. The country has an opponent to be defeated democratically by this ballot. The movement against socialism. ”
Nevertheless, polls suggest that the Socialists remain the most popular political force in Bolivia, if not quite as popular as they once were. Morales, a figure larger than life, long considered a standard bearer of the Latin American left, won e.g. Re-election in 2009 with 62 percent of the vote. A major poll recently showed that the Socialists were far below this level. But Arce still seems close to the threshold for a victory in the first round: 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point victory margin.
If no candidates meet this bar on Sunday – Mesa has claimed that internal polls show he is also flirting with a win in the first round – the race will run for a run-off next month. Opinion polls suggest a second round will almost certainly place Arce against Mesa, who would likely have the edge as a divided opposition potentially collapses around him.
The big question is whether cool heads will win when voting and counting on Sunday. Last year’s vote was marred by violence. Morales, who was seeking a controversial fourth term, appeared to be heading for a narrow victory in the first round when the Organization of American States reported serious irregularities. Clashes between Morale’s supporters and opponents intensified, the police and the military withdrew their support, and he fled into exile, rejecting a “coup”.
Morales is barred from running on Sunday. Now in Argentina, he has been the MAS campaign leader.
Arce suggested that his opponents orchestrate a plan to prevent him from winning the first round. He dismissed the return of OAS observers as an “offense of the Bolivian people.”
OAS did not respond to a request for comment.
“We are already predicting the position of the losing right-wing parties,” Arce told The Post. “They will say that there will be another round when there will not be another round. We’re ready for that. ”
Suggestions from socialist militants that they would take to the streets if Arce did not win in the first round have raised concerns about a repeat of last year’s violence – as well as fears that right-wing paramilitary groups may try to do the same.
“I’m panicking,” said Valeria Soruco, 37, who took part in anti-Morale demonstrations in La Paz last year. She said she saw socialist supporters attack the home of her neighbor Waldo Albarracín, a Morales critic and human rights activist. “I am sure that MAS will not remain calm. They will come with force to exterminate those who are against them. ”
Morales’ deportation brought US-backed interim president Jeanine Áñez and her influential interior minister, Arturo Murillo, to power. Áñez initially promised to be a caretaker whose role would be limited to running for re-election. Then she applied for a full period. She finally withdrew her candidacy last month amid grim voting numbers, in part because of what many Bolivians see as her government’s rejected response to the coronavirus crisis.
Murillo traveled to Washington last month for talks with U.S. officials, which he said were about “defending” Bolivian democracy. The statement raised alarm bells among some of Arce’s supporters who see the Trump administration as no friend of the Socialists.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said the discussions involved a range of topics, including elections and support for Bolivian requests from the International Monetary Fund. The official said the United States was ready to work with Arce if he wins “democratically.”
“We are open to working with the winner of the election,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under the basic rules of a briefing.
The Áñez government and its supporters fear retaliation if the Socialists win.
In the wake of Morale’s exile, Áñez presided over a wave of repression that led to the detention of hundreds of left-wingers, the muzzle of journalists and a “national pacification” campaign that left at least 31 people dead, according to Bolivia’s national ombudsman and human rights groups.
Arce said he would not seek to influence the courts if he wins. But he said his opponents are aiming to prevent his victory in order to avoid being held accountable. He said he was concerned that election officials would declare a second round before slowly arriving votes counted from rural areas are considered socialist strongholds.
“They want a coverup. . . the murders, the acts of corruption in this government, ”Arce said. “There is clearly an intention to conclude a pact on impunity.”
Rising political tensions have made this election different from almost every other here since the restoration of democracy 38 years ago. Right-wing paramilitary groups are accused of attacking socialists; leftists are accused of hurting government supporters.
Morales, who presided over a region-leading reduction in poverty during his 13-year term but became more and more authoritarian as he held on to power in his final years, is weaving across the race. Arce, who was his finance minister, has tried to distance himself from his former boss, who, despite all his ardent rhetoric, adopted a brand of business-friendly socialism that was far from Guevara’s calls for a Marxist revolution. Arce has insisted that Morales will have to be prosecuted for interim actions brought by the caretaker government if he returns, but his opponents say the socialist campaign is a louse to pave the way for his return.
“Nobody cares who the presidential candidate is,” said Fernando Salazar, a sociologist at Universidad Mayor de San Simón in Cochabamba. “This is about Evo coming back and taking power. And if they do not achieve their goals, Bolivia is heading for civil war. ”
Faiola reported from Miami.