When, at the start of the week, Carlos Mesa appeared on track to face incumbent President Evo Morales in a run-off election, he rallied the opposition with a warning that December’s second-round vote would decide the “destiny of Bolivia”.
“If there’s someone who has systematically broken the constitutional order of Bolivia, it’s Evo Morales,” he said a few days later, after the president accused the opposition of plotting a coup by refusing to recognise the count of Sunday’s first-round vote that has been widely criticised.
Mr Mesa, a scholarly former historian, has emerged as the politician with the best chance to end the 14-year rule of Mr Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president who has previously won three crushing presidential election victories.
While Mr Morales on Thursday appeared on track to win a record fourth term by a whisker — with the latest count showing he held a sufficient lead over Mr Mesa to avoid that run-off contest — the 66-year-old who briefly served as Bolivia’s president in the 2000s was refusing to giving up without a fight.
“Thirteen years of a Morales government is too much — too much corruption,” he told the Financial Times in an interview, as he lambasted the sitting president for seeking “total control of the powers of the state and destruction of the democratic institutions”.
Mr Mesa, born in La Paz but educated in Madrid, is a familiar face to Bolivians. The political centrist served as vice-president under President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada for just over a year before the latter was forced to resign in 2003 after mass demonstrations in which dozens were killed. Mr Mesa then took over as president until he too had to resign amid a wave of protests orchestrated by Mr Morales.
He said that this time he had been reluctant to run for the presidency, before realising “my responsibility as a citizen was above my personal decision”.
Yet many in Bolivia, particularly in the indigenous community, view him as a fully fledged member of the white ruling class that held political hegemony in the country until Mr Morales swept to power.
Mr Morales, by contrast, is seen by many as the man who re-founded the country in the spirit of Túpac Katari, the Aymara leader who led a revolt against the occupying Spanish in the 18th century.
To Mr Morales’s credit, he has almost halved poverty rates and quadrupled gross domestic product during his time in office.
But critics, including Mr Mesa, have labelled the Morales government as corrupt, saying the president holds undue sway over the courts and cultivates a personality cult. Foes and former followers alike also accuse Mr Morales of becoming an autocrat, slamming his decision to shrug off defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek a fourth term.
His government now stands accused of vote fraud after Bolivia’s election authority on Sunday froze the tally updates for nearly a day after it appeared a second-round vote was likely.
The Organization of American States was among those to criticise the count, with the umbrella group calling for the run-off to take place. “Due to the context and the problems evidenced in this electoral process it would continue to be a better option to convene a second-round,” the OAS said.
Analysts suggest that if there was a second-round contest, Mr Mesa could unite the opposition and defeat Mr Morales. But if he did win the presidency, he would lead a polarised nation. He would also face a large fiscal deficit, a cooling economy and a congressional minority — not to mention a fiery opposition led by the still-popular Mr Morales.
Partly due to a fall in the price of Bolivian gas, its main export commodity, GDP growth has fallen from a peak of 6.8 per cent in 2013 to a forecast 3.9 per cent in 2019, while the budget deficit has ballooned from 3.3 per cent of GDP in 2014 to a predicted 7.8 per cent this year.
Mr Mesa said there was no need to be “apocalyptic” about the economy. If he won in December, he said, he would not seek to privatise the national resources and services businesses nationalised under Mr Morales but would work to boost private investment. “We need to reduce the budget deficit . . . to some 3 per cent within five years,” he said.
He has pinned his hopes of victory on mass street mobilisations and international pressure from bodies such as the OAS. The risk is that even if Mr Mesa can emerge victorious, Mr Morales could turn his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party and the linked social movements and trade unions into a powerful opposition force. Sunday’s polls also indicate that Mr Morales will have a majority in both houses of Congress.
“Mesa won’t last a year in office,” said a senior official in Mr Morales’s administration, adding that the risk of social conflict would be high.
However, Mr Mesa warned that five more years of Mr Morales and Bolivia would “go from authoritarianism to dictatorship”.