LA PAZ: Bolivians vote Sunday to decide whether to give leftist President Evo Morales a controversial fourth term or turn their backs on the country’s first indigenous leader amid allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.
Morales’ popularity has been waning and unlike his previous three election victories, opinion polls say this one is likely to go to an unprecedented second round runoff on December 15.
The latest shows Morales with 32 percent of the vote, while his main challenger, former president Carlos Mesa, has 27 percent.
In an eve-of-poll message on Twitter, Morales called on voters in the resource rich Andean state to participate “peacefully and actively” in the elections.
Mesa said he feared the elections would be fraudulent because of Morales’ powerful grip on key organs of state, and expressed his concerns in a meeting with observers from the Organization of American States.
Morales said the maturity of Bolivia’s electorate would make Sunday’s polls a triumph of democracy which would be “an example for delegations and observers who visit us.”
Morales, who will turn 60 next week, is already the longest-serving president in Bolivian history, having been at the helm for 13 years.
But he stands accused of corruption and many are enraged at his refusal to step aside, even though the South American country’s constitution bars him from running.
“Power has replaced policies aimed at the whole population by others that only serve the interests of certain sectors,” political commentator Maria Teresa Zegada told AFP.
“Opposition leaders have been persecuted, all of which has caused citizens unease and given the impression that democracy was in danger,” said Zegada.
Mesa has no party of his own but is backed by a minor center-left party. He also has support from a collective of other small parties.
The journalist and historian, who was president from 2003-2005, was a vocal critic of Morales even before announcing his latest bid for office.
Bolivia’s 2009 constitution, promulgated by Morales himself, limits a president to two consecutive terms of office.
Then in a 2016 referendum, voters defeated Morales’s bid to secure public support to remove term limits, but his government rejected the result.
The constitutional court, stacked with Morales loyalists, ruled it was his right to seek re-election.
Morales points to a decade of economic stability and considerable industrialization as his achievements, while insisting he’s brought “dignity” to Bolivia’s indigenous population, the largest in Latin America.
But he came under severe criticism earlier this year as wildfires in August and September ravaged Bolivia’s forests and grasslands, with activists saying his policies encouraged blazes to clear farmland.
Environmental experts said more than two million animals, including jaguars, pumas and llamas, died. A non-governmental organization said more than four million hectares (nearly 10 million acres) were destroyed.
The outcry that followed, particularly among indigenous communities, has helped boost Mesa’s candidacy.
Bolivia’s 7.3 million electorate will also vote Sunday to renew the 136-seat congress.
Polls open at 8:00 am (1200 GMT) and close at 4:00 pm.
None of the other candidates are expected to come close to challenging the top two, but neither Morales nor Mesa is likely to win outright.