LA PAZ, Bolivia – Evo Morales’ party won the presidential election in Bolivia when the official results of the rerun of Sunday’s canceled ballot, in which the left leader resigned and fled the country, arrived on Sunday.
More than nine hours after the polls were closed, barely 6% of all ballot boxes had been counted, and they showed Morales’ hand-picked successor, Luis Arce, who is lagging behind a conservative rival.
However, interim president Jeanine Áñez – an arch rival of Morales – also realized that with a large number of polling stations that were far in favor of Arce, the socialist movement would return to power in what appeared to be a major jolt to South America’s besieged left .
“I congratulate the winners and ask them to rule the thinking in Bolivia and in our democracy,” said Áñez on Twitter.
Bolivians have long been used to quick preliminary results in presidential elections. After the allegations of fraud and the days of unrest last year, the newly appointed electoral authorities asked for patience and reminded voters that they have up to five days to declare a winner.
While the vote was peaceful, Sunday night’s long wait for results sparked speculation that something was going wrong. In addition to the intrigue, two exit polls were withheld from being published after private respondents said they did not trust their own poll results.
Morales broke the tense silence by declaring Arce the winner. Two respondents later said a quick count of the official counting sheets at select polling stations showed Arce received more than 50% of the vote, compared with 31% for former President Carlos Mesa, the top finisher of four rivals.
“We have restored our democracy,” said Morales in brief remarks from his Argentine exile. “Lucho will be our president.”
A few minutes later, Arce appeared and asked for silence. He said he would try to form a government of national unity.
“I think the Bolivian people want to return to the path we have taken,” said Arce around midnight, surrounded by a small group of supporters, some of them in traditional Andean clothing in honor of the country’s indigenous roots.
The early official results favored Mesa, a former journalist and historian, 49% versus 33% for Arce.
Before the vote, polls showed Arce is ahead but does not have enough votes to avoid a November runoff, where Conservative voters likely would have rallied behind Mesa. To win in the first round, a candidate needs more than 50% of the vote or 40% with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the second-placed candidate.
Arce, who as Morales’ economics minister oversaw spikes in growth and reductions in poverty for more than a decade, would face an uphill battle this time around to stimulate growth.
The coronavirus, which caused the authorities to postpone the elections twice on Sunday, has hit the impoverished landlocked Bolivia harder per capita than almost any other country. Almost 8,400 of the 11.6 million people have died from COVID-19.
Arce is also faced with the challenge of getting out of the long shadow of his former boss, who continues to polarize, but whose support allowed the reluctant UK-trained economist to launch a strong campaign.
Morales was banned from running in Sunday’s elections, including a seat in Congress, and will face criminal prosecution if he returns home. Few expect the sometimes indescribable politician to remain idle in a future Arce administration.
Once one of the politically most volatile countries in Latin America, Bolivia experienced a rare period of stability under Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.
Morales, a childhood lama shepherd who played a leading role in running a coca growers’ union, had been extremely popular in overseeing an export-oriented economy. However, support dwindled due to his reluctance to leave power, increasing authoritarian impulses and a series of corruption scandals.
He shrugged off a public vote that set tenure limits and entered the October 2019 presidential election, which he reportedly narrowly won. However, there was a long pause in reporting the results of suspected fraud and nationwide protests in which at least 36 people died.
When police and military leaders suggested that he leave, Morales resigned and fled the country. Morales called his overthrow a coup and an unelected Conservative government has ruled since then.
Sunday’s vote was an attempt to reset democracy in Bolivia. All seats in the 136-member legislative assembly were also up for grabs and should reflect the results of the presidential race.
“Bolivia’s new executive and legislature will face formidable challenges in a polarized country ravaged by COVID-19 and hampered by endemic institutions,” said the Washington Bureau for Latin America, a Washington-based human rights organization.
Morales led Bolivia from 2006 to 2019 and was the last survivor of the so-called “pink wave” of left leaders who came to power throughout South America during a commodities boom.
Although outrage over corruption has sparked a resurgence in right-wing politics, particularly in Brazil, Arce’s victory will revive the left, whose anthem of economic justice is widespread in a region that is projected to rise to 37% this year Attraction has the United Nations.
In the end, Arce could have benefited from overreaching and a number of mistakes made by Morales’ enemies. The conservative Senator Áñez declared herself interim president in the tumult of last year and was accepted by the courts. Despite not having a majority in Congress, her administration tried to persecute Morales and key aids while reversing his policies, which led to more unrest and polarization.
“A lot of people have said that if this is the alternative offered, I’d rather go back to how it was,” said Andres Gomez, a political scientist from La Paz.
Áñez was eliminated as a candidate for Sunday’s presidential election, while he did poorly in polls. This strengthened Mesa, who ruled Bolivia amid widespread protests following the resignation of former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003.
The Trump administration, which celebrated Morales ‘departure as a turning point for democracy in Latin America, was more cautious when Morales’ hand-picked successor appeared in the polls. A senior State Department official said this week the US is ready to work in a free and fair vote with anyone Bolivians select.