Bolivians go to polls as Evo Morales seeks fourth term

President facing tight race, with voters growing frustrated over corruption scandals

Bolivian president Evo Morales  casts his vote at a polling station on Sunday. Photograph: Jorge Abrego/EPA

Bolivian president Evo Morales casts his vote at a polling station on Sunday. Photograph: Jorge Abrego/EPA

 

South America’s longest-serving leader is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in Bolivian elections, but polls suggest Evo Morales is in the tightest race of his career. The 59-year-old left-winger, who cast his vote shortly after polls opened, is favoured to win the first-round vote, but he is likely to be forced into a December run-off where he could be vulnerable to a united opposition.

Voting – which was mandatory – appeared to be calm, although police said they arrested more than 100 people for violating the country’s rigid election day rules against drinking, large gatherings or casual driving.

The son of impoverished Aymara shepherds, Mr Morales came to prominence leading social protests and won election as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006. He allied himself with a left-wing bloc of Latin American leaders and used revenue from the Andean country’s natural gas and minerals to redistribute wealth among the masses and lift millions out of poverty in the region’s poorest country.

The economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5 per cent, well above the regional average. Mr Morales has also been credited for battling racial inequalities.

Referendum

He has faced growing dissatisfaction, even among his indigenous supporters. Some are frustrated by corruption scandals linked to his administration – though not Mr Morales himself – and many by his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms. While Bolivians voted to maintain term limits in 2016, the country’s top court – seen by critics as friendly to the president – ruled that limits would violate his political rights as a citizen.

Mr Morales’s closest rival, former president Carlos Mesa, is a 66-year-old journalist and historian who, as vice-president, rose to the nation’s top post when his predecessor resigned in 2003 amid widespread protests. He then stepped aside himself in 2005 amid renewed demonstrations led by Mr Morales, who was then leader of the coca growers’ union.

Bolivians will also elect all of the 166 congressional seats. Polls project that no party would have a majority in congress, which could lead to an impasse for the upcoming administration.