Morales, banned from running this time, is watching from Argentina as his former finance minister, leading candidate Luis Arce, 57, faces two main contenders, former central president Carlos Mesa, 67, and nationalist wing wing right Luis Camacho, 41 years old. Fear has passed over the recurrence of violence last year that saw crowds burn ballot boxes and street clashes, but the first hours of Sunday voting seemed largely calm.
In a surprise ruling Saturday, Bolivia’s electoral court announced it would not release the traditional quick-count projection projection as originally expected on Sunday. The court said it would instead wait to issue results until all ballots were counted or the election showed an undisputed trend. The decision, made by what he described as an abundance of caution in a highly polarized race, came as both sides went to the polls claiming the other would cheat.
Private exit polls were expected to be released, providing insight into elections seen as a measure of the strength of democracy in Latin America. But the decision of the electoral councils meant that Bolivians could wait a day or two, and potentially up to a week for official results.
Arce condemned the decision to keep partial results. He said his party, the Movement for Socialism, or MAS, was counting on it and would prioritize the result.
This is a step backwards in the transparency process, he told reporters after casting his vote Sunday.
But Mesa called the decision understandable, given that the partial vote release had sparked violence last year.
It is not ideal, but we understand it, he said. We will be patient and ask people to be patient.
Analysts warned that a long delay could increase tensions.
That adds to the uncertainty and anxiety, said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba. You now have a period of up to a week where anything can happen.
Going into Sunday, opinion polls showed Arce close to the threshold needed for a first-round victory. To avoid a runoff, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote, or at least 40 percent with a 10-point victory.
Analysts say Mesa, running second in the polls, will become the favorite in a second round of voting next month, assuming opposition to the Socialists unites around him. Camacho has followed both men in polls with significant differences.
Carla Nina Martnez, a 30-year-old nurse voting in a rural area who just sought out La Paz, described herself as a longtime supporter of the left. But she said she was changing her vote this year to support Mesa.
I appreciate some of the things President Evo Morales did. Everything was going very well, she said. But in the end, as always, politics ends up corrupt.
A survivor of covid-19, she said she blamed the Anez government for a poorly executed coronavirus plan.
During the highs of the pandemic, we were never provided with personal protective equipment and health personnel ended up getting infected, she said.
Santos Vallejo, 52, said the country’s poor economy amid the coronavirus pandemic made him vote for the Socialists.
Under socialist governments, we had jobs, he said outside a polling station in El Alto, a socialist stronghold near La Paz. I believe that MAS will win because we, the poor, are with them.
More than 10,000 troops were called in to keep the peace. In a message clearly addressed to the Socialists, influential Interior Minister Arturo Murillo led a show of force on Saturday with military soldiers and armored vehicles on the streets of La Paz. Murillo said the effort was aimed at preventing the return of dictators a clear reference to Morales, who was democratically elected three times before his controversial bid for a fourth term last year.
Arce has sought to distance himself from Morales. In an interview last week with the Washington Post, Arce said Morales would have to face the justice system to defend himself against multiple charges if he returned.
We think that our friend Evo has the right, if he wants, to return to the country and defend himself, said Arce.
Faiola reported from Miami. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.
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