LA PAZ, Bolivia — Half a century after the execution of leftist firebrand Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the Bolivian jungle, the forces of the political right and left are once again waging ideological war in this impoverished Andean nation.
The result could have broad implications across the region. Bolivian elections are seen as a referendum on Latin American socialism and a gauge of the strength of democracy in a part of the world that has grown increasingly disillusioned with it.
Perhaps more than anything, Bolivia presents a window into a deeply polarized society, where elections are fought in ugly, threatening language and waged with seemingly existential stakes.
“In a way, it’s very similar to the U.S. presidential race,” said Diego von Vacano, a political analyst who provided informal advice to the campaign of socialist front-runner Luis Arce. “Bolivia and the United States are very different in terms of development and democracy, but in terms of polarization, and rival claims of fraud ahead of the vote, they are now in comparable situations.”
The special election to choose a permanent successor to Morales was delayed several times amid Bolivia’s coronavirus outbreak.
Arce, a 57-year-old economist, is trying to reclaim the Bolivian presidency for Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS. Arce’s main opponents, the centrist former president Carlos Mesa, 67, and right-wing nationalist Luis Fernando Camacho, 41, have embraced a common refrain: For the good of Bolivia’s future, the socialists must be stopped.
“This is a vote that has to do with democratic consciousness,” Mesa said this week on Bolivian television. “I have one adversary. The country has one adversary that must be defeated democratically at that the ballot box. The Movement Toward Socialism.”
Nevertheless, polls suggest the socialists remain the most popular political force in Bolivia, if not quite as popular as they once were. Morales, a larger-than-life figure long viewed as a standard-bearer of the Latin American left, won reelection in 2009, for instance, with 62 percent of the vote. A major opinion poll recently showed the socialists well below that level. But Arce still appears close to the threshold for a first-round win: 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point margin of victory.
If no candidate meets that bar on Sunday — Mesa has claimed that internal polls show him flirting with a first-round victory, too — the race goes to a runoff next month. Polls suggest a second round would almost surely pit Arce against Mesa, who would probably have the edge as a divided opposition potentially coalesces around him.
The big question is whether cool heads will prevail as ballots are cast and counted on Sunday. Last year’s vote was marred by violence. Morales, who was seeking a controversial fourth term, appeared to be headed to a narrow first-round victory when the Organization of American States reported serious irregularities. Clashes between Morales’s supporters and opponents intensified, the police and military withdrew their support, and he fled into exile, decrying a “coup.”
Analyses published by The Washington Post and the New York Times have since cast doubt on the OAS findings. But a subsequent report by the European Union also noted “errors and irregularities” in the vote.
Morales has been barred from running on Sunday. Now in Argentina, he’s been the MAS campaign manager.
Arce suggested that his opponents were orchestrating a plan to stop him from winning in the first round. He decried the return of OAS observers as an “offense to the Bolivian people.”
The OAS did not respond to a request for comment.
“We are already predicting the attitude of the losing right-wing parties,” Arce told The Post. “They are going to say that there will be a second round, when there will be no second round. We are clear on that.”
Suggestions by socialist militants that they will take to the streets if Arce fails to win in the first round have fanned concern of a replay of last year’s violence — as have fears that right-wing paramilitary groups may seek to do the same.
“I feel panic,” said Valeria Soruco, 37, who joined anti-Morales demonstrations in La Paz last year. She said she saw socialist supporters attack the home of her neighbor Waldo Albarracín, a Morales critic and human rights activist. “I am sure that MAS is not going to remain calm. They will come with force to exterminate those who are against them.”
Morales’s ouster brought to power the U.S.-backed interim president Jeanine Áñez and her influential interior minister, Arturo Murillo. Áñez initially pledged to be a caretaker whose role would be limited to setting new elections. Then she sought a full term. She finally withdrew her candidacy last month amid dismal poll numbers, due in part to what many Bolivians view as her government’s botched response to the coronavirus crisis.
Murillo traveled to Washington last month for discussions with U.S. officials that he said were about “defending” Bolivian democracy. The statement raised alarm bells among some of Arce’s supporters, who see the Trump administration as no friend of the socialists.
A senior State Department official said the discussions involved a range of topics, including the elections and support for Bolivian requests with the International Monetary Fund. The official said the United States was prepared to work with Arce if he wins “democratically.”
“We are open to work with whoever wins the elections,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under the ground rules of a briefing.
The Áñez government and its supporters fear retribution if the socialists win.
In the aftermath of Morales’s exile, Áñez presided over a wave of repression that led to the detention of hundreds of leftists, the muzzling of journalists and a “national pacification” campaign that left at least 31 people dead, according to Bolivia’s national ombudsman and human rights groups.
Arce said he would not seek to influence the courts if he wins. But he said his opponents are aiming to prevent his victory to avoid being held to account. He said he worries that election officials will declare a second round before slow-arriving votes are counted from the rural areas, considered socialist strongholds.
“They want a coverup . . . the murders, the acts of corruption that have occurred in this government,” Arce said. “There is clearly an intention to make a pact for impunity.”
Rising political tensions have made this election different from almost any other here since the restoration of democracy 38 years ago. Right-wing paramilitary groups are accused of attacking socialists; leftists are accused of wounding government supporters.
Morales, who presided over a region-leading reduction in poverty during his 13-year tenure but became increasingly authoritarian as he clung to power in his final years, looms over the race. Arce, who was his finance minister, has sought to distance himself from his former boss, who, for all his fiery rhetoric, adopted a brand of business-friendly socialism that was a far cry from Guevara’s calls for a Marxist revolution. Arce has insisted that Morales would need to face legal charges brought by the interim government if he returns, but his opponents say the socialist campaign is a ruse to pave the way for his return.
“Nobody cares who the presidential candidate is,” Fernando Salazar, a sociologist at the Universidad Mayor de San Simón in Cochabamba. “This is about Evo coming back and taking power. And if they don’t achieve their goal, Bolivia is heading for civil war.”
Faiola reported from Miami.