FOR THE SECOND time in less than two years mobs have defeated democratic institutions in the poor South American nation of Bolivia. President Carlos Mesa, who tried to settle paralyzing political conflicts through a referendum and accords with Congress, was forced from office earlier this month by a few thousand demonstrators who strangled the capital with road blockades. Mr. Mesa served only 19 months as president; his elected predecessor was also ousted by the militants. Capitulating to their demands, Congress swore in the president of the Supreme Court as a caretaker, and he in turn promised new elections. A free and fair vote offers the only real hope for Bolivia; the question is whether those who seek to rule by force will allow it to occur.

Bolivia, a landlocked nation of 8 million traversed by the Andes Mountains, is often portrayed as a land where an indigenous majority suffers under the yoke of a white elite and its exploitative policies. It's true that the country is riven by a divide between poor and rich that reflects ethnic lines, and that the Aymara and Quechua populations have never been adequately represented in Bolivian government. What's questionable is whether the xenophobic left-wing populists who now claim to represent the Indian poor really do so. Their best-known leader, Evo Morales, received 21 percent of the vote the last time he ran for president; until recently polls showed that a large majority of Bolivians supported Mr. Mesa, who tried to bridge the ethnic gap. Maybe that's why Mr. Morales, a client of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has repeatedly resorted to paralyzing strikes and road blockades to achieve his aims. These include nationalizing Bolivia's best hope for development -- the natural gas industry -- and holding an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

The populists' agenda would quickly return Bolivia to its benighted history as a backwater of state socialism, quintuple-digit inflation and endless political coups. Even worse, if that state of affairs is imposed via road blockade, it will risk civil war; Bolivia's eastern provinces, where most of the country's gas reserves lie, reject the militants' agenda and are demanding autonomy. That's why the country desperately needs the vote promised by caretaker president Eduardo Rodriguez, one that should encompass Congress as well as the presidency. If Mr. Morales and his followers really represent a majority of Bolivians, let them win a free and fair election. If not, they must stand back to allow another elected leader to govern. The international community -- led by the United States and the Organization of American States -- must make credible elections the centerpiece of an active policy for Bolivia.