The Bolivian president has led the country for 13 years but his bid for a fourth term is testing his popularity.
La Paz, Bolivia – President Evo Morales was in the lead in early returns from the first round of Sunday’s presidential election in Bolivia, but with less than a 10 percent margin over his closest opponent, former President Carlos Mesa, the election appeared to be headed into a run-off.
The Andean country’s top electoral authority said on Sunday night that with 83 percent of the vote counted, Morales was in front with 45.3 percent, followed by 38.2 percent for Mesa. If those results hold, there will be a run-off between the two top candidates on December 15.
“We’re going to a second round,” Mesa told his cheering supporters in La Paz.
Morales, 59, still has the highest number of votes. Addressing his supporters from his balcony late on Sunday, he refused to admit there would be a second round.
To chants of “Evo, Evo, Evo”, he told them: “I want to recognise our latest victory. Most Bolivians have committed to our ‘process of change’.”
Most of the outstanding votes are in rural areas which have historically favoured Morales, who is running for a controversial fourth term.
To avoid a December run-off and win outright, the former coca farmer needs to get 50 percent of the votes plus one or, with a 40 percent share finish 10 percentage points ahead of the nearest challenger.
Two hundred and thirty-five international observers monitored the election around the country, and while no irregularities had been reported on Sunday night, a delay to the transmission of results prompted the Organization of American States to ask for an explanation.
South Korean-born evangelical pastor, Chi Hyun Chung, was in third place with 8.7 percent of the vote.
Morales’ candidacy was controversial because he was running for his fourth term as president, in defiance of a two-term limit set out by the 2009 Bolivian constitution and a 2016 referendum on whether he could stand again, which he lost.
“We need to stay in power because we want to reduce extreme poverty even further than we have – to single digits in the next five years,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera told Al Jazeera.
The main focus of Mesa’s Citizen Community (CC) coalition was to denounce Morales’ candidacy as illegitimate and Morales as anti-democratic.
Lisbeth Machaca, a CC campaign worker told Al Jazeera, “My vote is for Mesa because we need to recover the rule of law in our country. All of us are determined to get Evo out of office.”
Both Mesa and Morales have been fixtures in Bolivia’s political landscape for more than 20 years. Their ongoing rivalry illustrates that neither the opposition nor the current governing party has been able to identify a new generation of leaders.
The opposition is unlikely to fundamentally change current economic policies, which have significantly reduced poverty and increased per capita income.
For three years, Bolivia has been facing a budget deficit and a decline in its international reserves due to a drop in the price of natural gas. Imports of gasoline, which is subsidised at half price in the local market, have grown and become increasingly difficult to maintain amid a high fiscal deficit.
If Mesa were to win, he would also have to negotiate with Bolivia’s active social movements, most of which support Evo Morales. Agribusiness in Santa Cruz, the country’s most economically dynamic region, also backs Morales. His government’s policies have favoured them for almost 10 years.
Morales’ support among working-class Bolivians remains strong.
“Most governments didn’t care about us,” La Paz handicraft saleswoman Marlene Cawi told Al Jazeera. “Thanks to Evo all that has changed. He has done so much good for poor people in this country.”
Whoever ultimately wins faces complex challenges.
“In contrast to the early years of the Morales government, Bolivia faces a difficult and uncertain international context,” said political scientist Fernando Mayorga. “Maintaining the social and economic gains made in the past 14 years is going to be extremely difficult.”