South America's longest-serving leader is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in Bolivian elections on Sunday, but polls suggest Evo Morales is in the tightest race of his career.
The 59-year-old leftist is favored to win the first round vote, but he's likely to be forced into a December runoff where he could be vulnerable to a united opposition.
The son of impoverished Aymara shepherds, Morales came to prominence leading social protests and won election as Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2006.
He allied himself with a leftist bloc of Latin American leaders and used revenues from the Andean country's natural gas and minerals to redistribute wealth among the masses and lift millions out of poverty in the region's poorest country. The economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5%, well above the regional average.
The son of Aymara Indian shepherds has also been credited for battling racial inequalities.
Many Bolivians, such as Celestino Aguirre, a 64-year-old vendor, still identify with Morales, saying people shouldn't criticize him so much. "It's not against Evo, it's against me, against the poor people, against the humble."
But Morales also has faced growing dissatisfaction even among his indigenous supporters. Some are frustrated by corruption scandals linked to his administration — though not Morales himself — and many by his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms. While Bolivians voted to maintain term limits in 2016, the country's top court — seen by critics as friendly to the president — ruled that limits would violate Morales' political rights as a citizen.
"I'm thinking of a real change because I think that Evo Morales has done what he had to do and should leave by the front door," said Nicolás Choque, a 27-year-old car washer.
Mauricio Parra, 40, who administers a building in downtown La Paz, said he voted for Morales in 2006 as a reaction against previous center-right governments.
"He did very well those four years. ... (But) in his second term there were problems of corruption, drug trafficking, nepotism and other strange things" that led Parra to vote against repealing term limits in the 2016 referendum. "He hasn't respected that. That is the principle reason that I'm not going to vote for Evo Morales."
He said he was backing Morales' closest rival, former President Carlos Mesa, a 66-year-old journalist and historian who, as vice president, rose to the nation's top post when his predecessor resigned in 2003 amid widespread protests. He then stepped aside himself in 2005 amid renewed demonstrations led by Morales, who was then leader of the coca growers' union.
An Oct. 4-6 poll by the San Andres Higher University and other institutions showed Morales apparently leading Mesa, 32% to 27% heading into the first round of voting, with the rest split among other candidates.
That would set up a runoff, and the poll showed Morales and Mesa practically tied at just under 36% each in a two-way race — with the rest of those surveyed saying they were undecided, would cast a null ballot or declining to state a preference. The poll surveyed 14,420 people and the margin of error was 2.82 percentage points.
Bolivians will also elect all of the 166 congressional seats. Polls project that no party would have a majority in Congress, which could lead to an impasse for the upcoming administration.
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