Bolivia awaits voting results in election redo amid pandemic

Elias Hubbard
October 19, 2020

Bolivia has experienced political turmoil since Morales stepped down in November of past year, after a controversial presidential election.

Six hours after polls closed, barely 3% of all ballot boxes had been counted, officials said.

Most polls have shown Arce with a lead, though likely not enough to avoid a November run-off, which will occur if none of the seven candidates gets at least 40 percent of the vote in addition to a 10 percentage point lead over the closest rival.

"No matter who wins, Bolivia will be extremely hard to govern", said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Interamerican Dialogue.

Voting appeared to be peaceful Sunday, with long lines at some polling places but little of the hustle and bustle of past election days.

Followers of presidential candidate and Bolivia's former President Carlos Mesa parade through the streets before the elections, in La Paz, Bolivia, October 14, 2020.

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

"It's not ideal but we understand that (the electoral body) has chosen the path to guaranteeing absolute security of the vote and above all the official count", said centrist former president Carlos Mesa, who has been running second in polls and is expected to face Arce in a run-off next month.

Protests over the vote and later his ouster set off a period of unrest that caused at least 36 deaths.

And that was all before Bolivia's Covid-19 outbreak became one of the worst in the world.

"All the data known so far indicate that there has been a victory for the Movement towards Socialism", Morales, who handpicked Arce and has been closely advising the campaign, said in a press conference in Buenos Aires.

The vote will bring to an end the year-long interim presidency of conservative Anez, who withdrew from the race a month ago as criticism rose of her handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 8,400 people dead and infected 130,000.

Bolivia's entire 136-member Legislative Assembly will also be voted in. Voters appeared to be wearing masks and following physical-distancing restrictions. The country's Supreme Electoral Court announced late on Saturday that it had decided unanimously against reporting preliminary vote totals as ballots are counted.

The court said it wanted to avoid the uncertainty and violence of last year's election.

Mr Morales, who was barred from running, issued a statement from his refuge in Argentina urging his backers not to be provoked into violence, urging them to patiently wait for the results.

The election was postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Overshadowing the vote is Morales, who led Bolivia from 2006 until 2019 and was a key figure in the bloc of leftist leaders who held power across much of South America.

Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate Luis Arce, who has consistently led opinion polls since he was nominated in January, criticized the suspension of the rapid count as he voted in La Paz, saying it "could generate doubts".

Sunday's election will be a major test of the left's clout in Latin America and the legacy of Morales, who was one the last leftist icons standing from a wave of leftist presidents that swept the region in the mid 2000s, for over a decade. But support was eroding due to his reluctance to leave power, increasing authoritarian impulses, a series of corruption scandals and conservatives' irritation over his promotion of Indigenous culture and "earth mother" religious observances. But a lengthy pause in reporting results fed suspicions of fraud, and nationwide protests broke out.

Conservative Sen. Jeanine Anez proclaimed herself president and was accepted by the courts.

The rapid count in 2019 suggested there would be no outright victor, but after it was inexplicably frozen for 24 hours, Morales had jumped into a winning lead over Mesa once the live count resumed. Her administration, despite lacking a majority in congress, set about trying to prosecute Morales and key aides while undoing his policies, helping prompt more unrest and polarization.

Polling stations were open from 1200-2100 GMT (8:00 am to 5:00 pm local time) but some had to stay open longer as queues of people were still waiting to vote. That gave a boost to Mesa, a former journalist and historian who governed Bolivia following the resignation in 2003 of former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada amid widespread protests.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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