Amid a pandemic and months of political turmoil, Bolivians say a tense calm has taken over the nation as voters prepare to head to the polls on Sunday.
The fraught rerun of Bolivia’s presidential elections comes at a time of deep divisions in the South American country and experts say the contest will be hard-fought – and may be decided in a runoff before the end of the year.
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“There’s a fear that whatever the outcome of the election, there is going to be violence, and we have to be prepared for that,” said Jorge Derpic, assistant professor in sociology, Latin American and Caribbean studies at the University of Georgia.
“This is going to be a close election,” Derpic said.
The leading contenders in the October 18 vote are former Economy Minister Luis Arce, the Movement for Socialism party (MAS) candidate who led an extended period of boom under ousted former President Evo Morales, and Carlos Mesa, a centrist former president.
Trailing behind in all the polls is Luis Fernando Camacho, a conservative protest leader, and Chi Hyun Chung, a Korean-born evangelist.
In Bolivian elections, to win outright, a candidate requires at least 40 percent of the votes in the first round, and a 10-point lead over the closest competitor.
“A second round would pit the MAS against Carlos Mesa, as Fernando Camacho would withdraw,” said John Crabtree, co-author of the book Bolivia: Processes of Change.
“Under those circumstances, Carlos Mesa would be the narrow victor,” Crabtree said.
Mesa, 67, was vice president back in 2003. He became president after national protests, led in part by Morales, forced the resignation of then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
Continuing unrest forced Mesa to step down. He then oversaw elections in 2006, which Morales won in a landslide.
Mesa, a historian and an intellectual, is considered a political outsider, but he commands substantial support, especially among Bolivia’s urban middle class.
Overshadowing the vote, delayed twice because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is Morales, 60, a Left-wing leader and the nation’s first Indigenous president who held office for 14 years and ushered in an era of unprecedented stability and growth in the country.
Once widely popular, Morales alienated many Bolivians, especially middle-class voters, by insisting on running for a fourth term in office in defiance of a referendum against extending term limits.
Allegations of corruption and mismanagement also dogged his time in office.
That discontent was amplified on election night on October 20, when he claimed he was the outright winner after a lengthy unexplained pause in the publication of results – feeding suspicions of fraud and sparking outrage.
At least 36 people have been killed amid nationwide protests and violence since that vote.
Morales resigned in November after police and military leaders pulled their support and an audit by the Organization of American States (OAS) found serious irregularities in the vote count. The findings of that report have since been contested and Morales and his supporters say he was the victim of an orchestrated coup. But that election was voided.
Amid a power vacuum, conservative Senator Jeanne Anez declared herself interim president, promising swift new elections. But during her time in office, Anez sought to consolidate her grip on power and announced her own bid for president, after initially saying she did not plan to run.
She also sought to clamp down on MAS supporters and charged Morales with terrorism – prompting allegations of human rights violations by rights groups, and further fuelling polarisation in the country.
She withdrew from the race in September, after polls showed her trailing badly among voters.
“Anez did a good job the first couple of months, and had a degree of popular support that many people thought was going to lead to the sponsoring of elections in May,” said Eduardo Gamarra, professor of political science at Florida International University.
“Instead, she destroyed her legitimacy by deciding to run,” Gamarra said, adding that she leaves behind a fractured opposition, demonstrated by the fact that seven opposition candidates are running this election.
“She’s going to leave office in shame, as someone who attempted to stay on and ran politics and the Bolivian economy with re-election in mind, and nothing else.”
Further fuelling fears that the results of Sunday’s election would once again be marred by allegations of voter meddling, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, after meeting Anez’s interior minister Arturo Murillo in late September, tweeted that Murillo had voiced concern “about the possibility of a new fraud”.
In the tweet, Almagro promised to “strengthen” the OAS observation mission on the ground.
Ayer me reuní con @MindeGobierno de #Bolivia @ArturoMurilloS. Me transmitió su preocupación sobre posibilidad de nuevo fraude en #EleccionesGenerales2020. Nos comprometimos a máximos esfuerzos xa fortalecer la Misión Electoral de #OEAenBolivia y xa asegurar la voluntad del pueblo pic.twitter.com/Ek0J0ZtoVX
— Luis Almagro (@Almagro_OEA2015) September 30, 2020
From exile in Argentina, Morales continues to exert influence and command intense loyalty among his supporters, especially the country’s Indigenous population, which sees him as a transformative leader who gave them a political voice after decades of suppression under prior administrations.
Barred from running himself, he picked Arce to run as a candidate. If the MAS wins, Morales has said he would return to Bolivia, where charges against him would be expected to be dropped.
Arce, 57, a middle-class economist, was educated in the United Kingdom.
As economy minister, he presided over policies that took advantage of a rise in prices of raw materials, helping boost Bolivia’s economy during Morales’s administration – as well as slashing poverty and reducing inequality in the country.
The World Bank forecasts that Bolivia’s economy, largely led by farming and gas, will contract by about 6 percent this year.
The party now hopes that while the pandemic has left many poorer and out of work, memories of past economic stability under the MAS, will boost their prospects in the polls.
Arce’s backing depends heavily on the country’s unions, rural voters and Indigenous groups – a solid base of supporters with a history of organised mobilisation and protests.
This summer, amid uncertainty over when the elections would be held, thousands of MAS supporters set up nearly 150 roadblocks nationwide, paralysing the country, causing food shortages and delaying the transport of critical medical supplies.
But the roadblocks proved highly unpopular, prompting Morales to urge his supporters to stop.
Filipe Carvalho, a Bolivia analyst with the Eurasia Group, said despite the potential for a return to street protests following the vote on Sunday, there is evidence that the MAS may opt for other strategies.
“The party as a whole has come to a recognition that many of its protest tactics and blockades, especially during a pandemic have harmed more than helped them,” Carvalho told Al Jazeera.
“Leaders are more likely to push their supporters to campaign for a runoff instead of taking to the streets in protest.”
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, analysts say the MAS remains the country’s largest and most powerful political force – and it will confront a fragmented opposition in an election that can set the political direction of the highly polarised nation.
“The opposition over the past year could have organised and unified,” said Diego Von Vacano, a Bolivian political science professor at Texas A&M University.
But Anez’s administration had no coherent coronavirus policy and made several ministerial changes that “demonstrated a lack of planning and unity”, Von Vacano said.
“It was a chance for the opposition to show that they are competent, but they have shown to be the complete opposite.”