In Election, Bolivia Confronts Legacy of Ousted Socialist Leader

By Julie Turkewitz

Sunday’s election is seen as a referendum on Evo Morales, who lifted many out of poverty in his 14 years as president, but whose policies and tone divided the country.

A polling site in Achocalla, Bolivia, on Sunday. The election is widely viewed as a referendum on the 14-year political project of former President Evo Morales.
A polling site in Achocalla, Bolivia, on Sunday. The election is widely viewed as a referendum on the 14-year political project of former President Evo Morales.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Adalid Zelada fully supported Evo Morales when Bolivia chose him as the country’s first Indigenous president in 2005.

The way many saw it, large numbers of Bolivians were painfully poor, society was deeply unequal and power was overwhelmingly concentrated among the white elite. Mr. Morales, a socialist and former llama herder, spoke of equality, ending discrimination and recovering the nation’s resources from foreign hands.

“They were very good ideas,” said Mr. Zelada, 47. “But over time, it all became an authoritarian strategy to co-opt power. And those good ideas became just words.”

As Bolivians went to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president, the election was widely viewed as a referendum on the 14-year political project of Mr. Morales, a towering figure in Bolivian politics who lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty but whose policies and rhetoric often divided the country.

In recent years, even supporters began to abandon him amid allegations of misuse of funds, abuse of power and, more recently, a sexual relationship with a minor.

He fled Bolivia last year after his attempt to win a fourth term ended in a contested election and deadly protests. Mr. Morales called it a coup. Others accused his government of trying to rig the vote.

ImageThe line outside a polling station at a school in El Alto, Bolivia, on Sunday.
The line outside a polling station at a school in El Alto, Bolivia, on Sunday.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Voting in Bolivia is mandatory, and on Sunday lines began to form outside schools converted into precincts even before polling places opened at 8 a.m. Soon, patios filled with voters, who entered classrooms one by one to fill out paper ballots, then dropped their votes in cardboard boxes, to be counted by hand later that night.

Many called the moment critical one, and said they had arrived despite fears of the coronavirus. “This is going to define our country’s destiny,” said Enrique Huanca, 58.

Sunday was a redo of last year’s election, and came at a time of deep polarization, at a level notable even for a country accustomed to division and unrest. In the weeks leading up the election, the United Nations documented at least 41 acts of political violence.

In the streets of La Paz, the administrative capital, there is little agreement about whether there was electoral fraud last year. And Mr. Morales’s party, the Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS, is casting doubt on the voting system, warning supporters of almost certain “electoral fraud” and a process stacked against them.

A recent poll by the nongovernmental organization Fundación Jubileo found that just 40 percent of Bolivians trust the country’s electoral body, despite major efforts to overhaul it since last year.

It could take days for results to come in.

And when the count is announced, large swaths of the country are likely to be angry, political observers say, and violence is a real possibility.

Military police in La Paz, the Bolivian capital, on Saturday. When the result of Sunday’s election is announced, much of the country is likely to be angry, political observers say, and violence is a real possibility.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The vote is largely a choice between Mr. Morales’ handpicked successor, his former economics minister, Luis Arce, and Carlos Mesa, a centrist former president.

Mr. Arce’s appeal to voters is that he can continue the socialist movement his predecessor started — while being very different from Mr. Morales.

In the back of his campaign car just before the election, he called Mr. Morales’s decision to run for a fourth term “an error,” insisted that he would run for only a single term and said he considered himself a transitional candidate.

“I have no interest in power,” he said. “I want to move the country forward, leave it in the hands of young people, and I’ll go.”

Mr. Morales, he added, would have no part in his government. “We see him as a historical figure.”

Mr. Mesa is running as the anti-Morales candidate, promising a return to peace after years of political and social division.

Voting in Bolivia is mandatory, and on Sunday lines began to form outside schools converted into precincts even before polls opened at 8 a.m.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Mr. Morales’s wrongdoings, he added, had been papered over by journalists and left-wing politicians “who have a fascination with the fact that he was the first Indigenous president.”

“We are the only political force in this country with the ability to begin reconciliation, heal the wounds and construct a space of unity,” he said.

A third candidate, Luis Fernando Camacho, threatens to split the conservative vote, pushing Mr. Arce and Mr. Mesa to a potential runoff.

In the streets of La Paz last week, much of the conversation was not about Mr. Arce, Mr. Mesa or Mr. Camacho — but about the legacy Mr. Morales leaves behind.

During Mr. Morales’s time in office, he promised to lift many living on the margins, and in some places fulfilled that promise, building schools, hospitals and roads. The country’s poverty rate fell to 35 percent of the population from 60 percent, according to World Bank figures.

But Mr. Zelada, the disillusioned Morales supporter, said he ultimately felt that the former president wasted his chance to truly transform the country. Mr. Morales ran Bolivia amid a commodities boom — with money pouring into the country — and his party controlled congress for all 14 years of his presidency.

The president could have done so much more, Mr. Zelada said. He plans to vote for Mr. Mesa.

Voters looking for their names indicating where to vote in Achocalla.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In the city of El Alto, a MAS stronghold perched above the capital, there were plenty of people who said they were voting for Arce, and said they remained faithful to Mr. Morales. “He governed well,” said Luisa Álvarez, 40.

But at one precinct, Miguelina Sanabria, 59, sat in a wooden chair on the second floor, explaining how she had gone from longtime MAS supporter to Mesa voter. She grew up in Chapare, the jungle region of Bolivia where Mr. Morales got his political start, and appreciated that he was from the countryside, that he had tried to help women like her.

In his third term, though, she began to turn against him when, she said, he seemed unwilling to give up power. This year, she’s jobless and angry, and looking for something new.

“He just kept going,” she said of Morales. “He didn’t leave space for younger leaders. He wanted to run everything.”

She raised her voice. It seemed she wanted voters around her to hear. “I decided to switch to Mesa,” she went on. “I hope he doesn’t let me down, too.”

Dated posters show support for Mr. Morales, Bolivia’s former president, on a street in El Alto, one of the country’s largest cities.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by María Silvia Trigo from Tarija, Bolivia.