Bolivians hope to restore political stability in Sunday presidential election

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivians head to the polls on Sunday in an election many hope can restore stability to an Andean country that was plunged into turmoil after a fraught and eventually voided vote last year, leaving the country in the hands of an interim president.

The frontrunners are Luis Arce, who champions a return to the socialist and pro-indigenous policies of former President Evo Morales, and Carlos Mesa, a centrist who served as president in the early 2000s. Polls show Arce ahead, but not enough to avoid a runoff which would take place in late November.

There are also several other centrist and conservative candidates on the ballot.

"The vote is set to be the most important since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1982," said Carlos Valverde, a political analyst.

The election will be a test of the left's clout in Latin America, as Morales was a key figure in a wave of leftist presidents in the region over the last decade.

Bolivia erupted in violence late last year when Morales sought a fourth term in a disputed election which has since been annulled. The violence cost at least 30 lives, sparked food shortages and forced Morales to resign after almost 14 years in power.

On Saturday, La Paz, a city starkly divided by class and race, appeared calm with little partisan activity. But residents across town acknowledged they are worried that the result of Sunday's vote could spark more violence, especially if Arce's vote count falls short.

Arce told local media this week that the only way his rival could win is "through fraud."

Freddy Mamami, a member of Arce's Movement Toward Socialism party who is running for Congress, told Reuters: "If the electoral verdict is in line with the objective reality we see, nothing will happen."

The socialist stronghold of El Alto, a center of last year's violence, is seen as particularly volatile. The city was built by indigenous Bolivians atop a mountain overlooking La Paz and has grown to dwarf the capital city in population.

The election was originally scheduled to take place in May, but was postponed several times due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Polls are set to open at 8 a.m. local time (noon GMT), and voting will be entirely in person.

On Saturday night, Bolivia's electoral board announced it would not release preliminary results that were expected on Sunday evening. It is unclear when the first official results will be available.

(Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in La Paz; Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

10/18/2020 10:41

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