LA PAZ, Bolivia (Dispatches) – Evo Morales’ party claimed victory in Bolivia’s bitter presidential election, after the right-wing, U.S.-backed interim president, Jeanine Anez Chavez, conceded defeat.
Sunday’s vote, a do-over of last year’s questionable contest, proceeded peacefully. That vote ended with longtime socialist President Morales forced out of power into exile in a move akin to a military coup.
Morales, banned from running this time, watched from Argentina as his former finance minister, front-runner Luis Arce, 57, raced to the top of exit polls. Arce is likely to win more than 50 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a November runoff and claim outright victory.
"I congratulate the winners and I ask them to govern thinking in Bolivia and in our democracy,” Anez said on Twitter. "We’ve recovered our democracy,” Morales said in brief remarks from exile in Argentina. "Lucho will be our president.”
The authorities have up to five days to declare an official winner.
Arce, meanwhile, appealed for calm in the bitterly divided nation saying he would seek to form a government of national unity under his Movement Toward Socialism party.
"I think the Bolivian people want to retake the path we were on,” Arce declared around midnight surrounded by supporters, some of them in traditional Andean dress in honor of the country’s Indigenous roots.
Arce, who oversaw a surge in growth and a sharp reduction in poverty as Morales’ economy minister for more than a decade, will face an uphill battle trying to reignite that growth.
The boom in prices for Bolivia’s mineral exports that helped feed that progress has faded, and the new coronavirus has hit the impoverished, landlocked Bolivia harder than almost any other country on a per capita basis. Nearly 8,400 of its 11.6 million people have died of COVID-19.
Anez’s government tried to overturn many of Morales’ policies and wrench the country away from its leftist alliances. Newly installed electoral authorities barred Morales from running in Sunday’s election, even for a seat in congress, and he faces prosecution on what are seen as trumped-up charges of terrorism if he returns home.
Few expect the sometimes-irascible politician to sit by idly in a future Arce government.
Bolivia, once one of the most politically volatile countries in Latin America, experienced a rare period of stability for 14 years under Morales, the country’s first Indigenous president.
A boyhood llama herder who became prominent leading a coca grower’s union, Morales had been immensely popular while overseeing an export-led economic surge.
He competed in the October 2019 presidential vote, which he claimed to have narrowly won outright. But protests followed, leading to the deaths of at least 36 people amid claims of fraud which he dismissed as baseless.
When police and military leaders suggested he leave, Morales resigned and left the country, along with several key aides. Morales called his ouster a coup.
All seats in the 136-member Legislative Assembly were also being contested, with results expected to echo the presidential race.
Morales led Bolivia from 2006 until 2019 and was the last survivor of the so-called "pink wave” of leftist leaders that swept into power across South America, including Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Arce’s victory is bound to reenergize the left, whose anthem of economic justice has broad appeal in a region where poverty is expected to surge to 37% this year, according to the United Nations.