LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales has steered South America’s poorest country through an unprecedented period of political stability and economic prosperity since sweeping to power in 2006. Things might be about to get a bit more bumpy.
Morales has defied term limits and the results of a national referendum to pursue a fourth consecutive term in an era-defining vote on Sunday that will determine if he extends his administration to 19 years, a move that has fueled protests and charges of creeping authoritarianism that he denies.
“What’s at stake this year, more than a political party that leans left or right, is our democracy,” said Mariela Arana, a 25-year-old university student who says she worries Morales might never leave office if given another term.
Thanks in part to Bolivia’s divided opposition, recent polls show Morales will likely win the election, but with his weakest mandate yet. He is seen securing support that hovers between 30% to 40% of the ballot, well below the more than 60% he won in the previous two elections.
That means he will likely fail to deliver a majority in Congress for his Movement to Socialism party for the first time. That would force him to govern with opposition parties which have railed against him as a would-be dictator in a divisive race that has sparked clashes at two of his recent rallies.
Though less likely, he may even be forced into a riskier run-off vote with his closest rival in December, potentially ending his experiment in “indigenous socialism” that a large part of the country has embraced and may resist losing.
Morales needs at least 40% of votes with a 10-point lead in Sunday’s election to win outright.
Known widely as just “Evo” in this country of 11 million people, Morales, the son of a llama shepherd and an Aymara Indian, has used the proceeds of the country’s commodity-driven economic boom to fund welfare programs, public work projects and education, fueling one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and helping to cut the poverty rate by nearly half.
Even if he wins, Morales might have to make tough choices as economic growth slows on slumping natural gas exports and a fiscal deficit that has swollen to 8% of gross domestic product.
No new natural gas reserves have been found since he has taken office and his efforts to turn Bolivia into a global lithium producer have faced repeated delays and resistance from some local communities.
(Graphic: Bolivia economy - here)
Morales has outlasted other leftist South American leaders who swept to power earlier this century, in part by courting private investment and minding inflation.
In the capital La Paz, migrants from crisis-stricken Venezuela now beg for coins on streets that bustle with young Bolivian professionals, civil servants and a flourishing class of small business entrepreneurs.
But despite Bolivia’s economic boom under Morales, many of his former supporters have soured on him as he has turned from a revolutionary force into the status quo.
Juan Carlos Quispe, a 44-year-old business administrator who voted for Morales in the last three elections, said he is still not convinced he should vote for him a fourth time. He worries about what he sees as growing corruption and populist measures that he says aim to distract from economic troubles.
The restlessness of many voters may be in part a side-effect of Morales’ success - a result of raised expectations from a growing middle class that wants more progress, and faster.
“Bolivia has changed, and we want a different president, too,” Quispe said.
Others blame Morales for not doing enough to help those left behind by Bolivia’s robust economic growth over the past decade.
“He’s pretty much forgotten about us,” said Alicia Ramos, a street vendor in La Paz who complained that Morales focused too much on rural areas and not enough on the urban poor like her.
The eight opposition candidates who are running against Morales have, however, largely failed to capitalize on growing dissatisfaction with his government.
“There’s been no strategy by the opposition to capture the popular vote,” Bolivian political analyst Marcelo Arequipa said. “They could have expanded their base, but they haven’t.”
Morales’ chief rival is Carlos Mesa, a former vice president-turned-president who resigned in 2005 as part of the political fallout from deadly clashes over government plans for gas exports.
Mesa has only given a handful of media interviews and has campaigned on a platform of strengthening democratic institutions and fighting graft - a sign of how popular Morales’ economic model is. Mesa has vowed not to impose austerity measures, and his government plan calls for a gradual reduction of the fiscal deficit starting in 2025, when his term would end.
“They’re offering the same thing that Evo has done all these years,” Lisette Gemio, a 50-year-old agricultural engineer, said of Mesa’s campaign. “Now that they see the country growing, they want to come in and take control and leave everything the way it was before.”
As she waited for her kids to emerge from a school in La Paz, Gemio ticked off a list of benefits Morales had brought to her life - affordable loans that helped her buy a new car for the first time, support for an agricultural sector that gave the consulting company she works for more business, and more job opportunities for the non-white majority.
“We’d lose everything we’ve gained.”
(Graphic: Bolivia heads to the polls - here)
(The story is refiled to fix spelling of “uncharted” in headline)
Reporting by Mitra Taj in La Paz; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Paul Simao