Bolivia’s presidential election looks set for an unprecedented run-off in December after preliminary results suggested that socialist Evo Morales had failed to win outright a controversial fourth term.
Following his toughest presidential fight since sweeping to power in 2006, the country’s first indigenous president on Sunday night hailed a “historic triumph”, despite failing to secure a sufficient lead over Carlos Mesa, a former president.
Mr Morales was ahead with 45.7 per cent of the vote with 83.8 per cent of ballots counted, while Mr Mesa was on 37.8 per cent. Mr Morales needed at least 40 per cent of the 5m votes cast, plus a lead of more than 10 percentage points over Mr Mesa to avoid a second round vote on December 15.
Battlelines were drawn between those favouring the so-called peasant president and those fearing his tightening grip on power after almost 14 years in office. In that time, the size of the Bolivian economy has quadrupled and poverty rates nearly halved in one of the region’s poorest countries.
Mr Morales secured his first presidential term with 54 per cent of the vote. He built on that to win again in 2009 with 64 per cent of the vote after the constitution was changed to allow immediate re-election. In 2014, he had the support of 61 per cent of voters. But this time the popularity of Latin America’s longest-sitting president has been undermined by voter fears that the country was tilting towards autocracy.
Daniel Moreno at Ciudadanía, a local think-tank, said Mr Morales had alienated voters by ignoring his defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be permitted to stand for a fourth term.
“Evo has tricked us, he doesn’t deserve to be president anymore,” said Ana Polonia Choque, an indigenous female wrestler and celebrity in La Paz.
The scholarly Mr Mesa was vice-president of Bolivia and served under the market-friendly Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada for just over a year. Mr Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign in 2003 following mass protests that led to scores being killed in El Alto, a city that is populated primarily by indigenous rural migrants.
Mr Mesa then served as president until his own resignation amid another bout of social protests, spurred by Mr Morales, in 2005.
“Evo has done many good things, but Mesa will bring along instability,” said Dora Romero, a 52-year-old woman from the Aymara ethnic group at a polling station in El Alto.
If such sentiment lifts Mr Morales to a second round vote victory, and allows him to complete another term, he will have been president for 20 years — not the half-century of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, but more than his late socialist Venezuelan ally Hugo Chávez.