Voters in Bolivia are stocking up on food and fuel in anticipation of widespread protests as the country is set to finally decide on its successor to controversial socialist leader Evo Morales who was forced out last year amid allegations of vote rigging.
Today’s bitterly disputed contest pits Mr Morales’s Movement to Socialism (MAS) against centrist and right-wing rivals, determined to halt their opponents’ return to power. Each side claims that the other is planning to cheat and the outcome of the vote could spark violence regardless of the winner.
MAS have seized on economic stress wrought by coronavirus and have the edge in the polls, but are unlikely to get enough votes to avoid a divisive run-off.
“The city is tense,” said 32-year-old Silvia Fernández, who lives in the Bolivian capital, La Paz. “It’s hard to imagine either side willing to concede defeat.”
This poll to choose a permanent successor to Mr Morales, who ran the country for 14 years before he fled it last year amid allegations of vote-rigging, has been delayed several times amid the country’s coronavirus outbreak.
The aftermath of last year's election was marred by weeks of street fighting that left 33 dead.
In 2016 Bolivians voted in a referendum to deny Mr Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, the right to run for a fourth term. But he ignored them and went on to win last October’s election in a poll that was marred by accusations of fraud.
Ms Fernández joined thousands of Bolivians in protests that toppled Mr Morales and his government a month later. He accused the country’s political right-wing of staging a coup. Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing senator, became interim president. Her only goal, she said, was to prepare fresh elections and unite the country. Instead, she decided to stand for president herself, before dropping out of the race last month due to a lack of support.
“Áñez just used the job for her own gain. She could have done so much to bring us together as Bolivians, but instead just forced us further apart,” said Ms Fernández.
Bolivia is deeply divided between those who support socialist presidential candidate, Luis Arce, and those who favour Carlos Mesa, a centrist former president.
Mr Arce, a 57-year-old economist and former cabinet minister, is Mr Morales’s handpicked candidate. In a recent televised address, Mr Mesa warned a continuation of socialism would destroy Bolivia’s democracy.
But polls suggest the socialists remain ahead, even if they are not quite as popular as they once were. If no candidate wins over 40 per cent of the vote with a 10 per cent margin of victory today, the race goes to a run-off next month.
“There is a high degree of polarisation and there may well be attempts at destabilisation,” said Jochen Kleinschmidt, a professor of political science and international relations at Bogotá’s El Rosario university in Colombia.
“But ultimately both sides realise the importance of re-establishing the legitimacy of the political system after last year’s chaos.”
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and as always, it’s us the voters who will suffer most,” said Ms Fernández.