Home featured In Election, Bolivia Confronts the Legacy of Its Ousted Socialist Leader

In Election, Bolivia Confronts the Legacy of Its Ousted Socialist Leader

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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 head to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president, the election is 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.

Sunday is a redo of last year’s election, and comes 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 has 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.

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

ImageSupporters of Mr. Morales protested last year after he was forced to flee the country.
Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

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.

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.

Mr. Morales’s party held its final campaign event this week in El Alto, an MAS stronghold that sits perched above the capital. It was a block party, and hundreds, if not thousands, attended. Women in traditional skirts gathered under a canopy of fireworks while their husbands tipped beers to the ground, an offering to Mother Earth.

Plenty of voters there had something positive to say about Mr. Morales, whose face shone from the blue party flags that crisscrossed the avenue on strings.

But there were also signs of the former leader’s waning popularity.

María Flores, 42, stood at the edge of the party. Ms. Flores, a traveling saleswoman and mother of three, said she appreciated what Mr. Morales had done for Indigenous women like her. Many had ascended to professional roles in recent years, and she was proud.

“We were always treated badly,” she said. “Now, not so much.”

But she had grown tired of Mr. Morales’s errors, particularly his decision to run for a third and then a fourth term. “He’s done good things,” she said, “but please, rest.”

She will be supporting Mr. Arce, she said, but only because he had promised to move on.

“If he returns,” she said of Mr. Morales, “the people of El Alto will rise up. We want someone else.”

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

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