Close presidential election predicted for Bolivia today

Dissimilar candidates representative of nation's deep polarization


LA PAZ, Bolivia -- With the presidential election hours away, the leading candidate is Evo Morales, a charismatic champion of the peasant producers of coca leaf - the raw ingredient in cocaine - and a devoted acolyte of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, South America's premier critic of the United States.

If elected, Morales, 46, would be the first Indian president in a nation where long-marginalized indigenous groups have focused their rage on multinational corporations and economic and anti-drug policies backed by the United States. Morales has vowed to decriminalize coca cultivation, a shot across the bow to longtime American policy here.

Morales' main rival for the presidency is his antithesis: Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, 45, a former president and a U.S.-educated product of Bolivia's largely white and mixed-race elite. Quiroga has accused Morales of having ties to narco-terrorism and says a Morales victory would encourage traffickers and scare off foreign investors.

As today's vote approaches, many in the deeply polarized Andean nation fear that the result will be uncertainty or outright chaos.

Neither candidate is expected to win a majority, and under Bolivian law the newly elected Congress would choose between the top two vote-getters. Many fear further trouble in a country where stability is precarious at best: Street protests have already chased two presidents from power in the last two years.

"If the election is close, which it probably will be, there's all kind of room for turmoil," said Eduardo A. Gamarra, a Bolivian who heads the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami. "The notion of governing from the streets is very, very prevalent in Bolivia."

Morales has emerged as a new star of a resurgent, post-Cold War Latin American left that rejects open-market and privatization prescriptions long pushed by Washington. Morales' political organization, pointedly named Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, has surged in the last decade from its origins in the steamy coca fields to become the nation's pre-eminent political movement.

"I don't mind being a permanent nightmare for the United States," Morales told an animated crowd of fellow Aymara Indians in the wind-swept town of Viacha.

The almost-mythic personal arc of Morales - a one-time llama herder, coca cultivator and itinerant trumpet player - has won him credibility among many here. He is accorded rock-star treatment in other Latin American and European capitals.

He relishes playing race and class cards in a country where Indians - perhaps half or slightly more of the total population, among the highest such percentages in Latin America - have historically been denied a place in government and other institutions. Bolivia's stubborn caste system survived a left-wing revolution in 1952 and subsequent political and land reforms.

"The poor, most of whom are indigenous peoples, have long been denied a path to social mobility," said Alejandro F. Mercado, an economist at the Catholic University of Bolivia. "A worker sees that he is poor, his parents and grandparents were poor, and his children and grandchildren will likely be poor. There's not much hope."

Morales, a gifted speaker, has focused his campaign on a call to restore government control of Bolivia's natural resources, especially its vast natural gas reserves, which are the second largest on the continent, after Venezuela.

"How can these treasures be in private hands?" Morales asked repeatedly during a recent campaign swing through the barren Altiplano, the desolate high plains that are the ancestral indigenous heartland.

Media-savvy and a populist, Morales often dons colorful native dress and occasionally puts on a miner's helmet - potent symbols of his ties to indigenous and disenfranchised Bolivians. Admirers inevitably garland him with flowers and shower confetti on his hair.

But Morales' perceived support of road blockades and other disruptive tactics has alienated many Bolivians, who fear greater disarray if he were in power. That distrust comes not only from the corbatudos - "tie-wearers," as the professional classes are called pejoratively - but from working-class sectors as well.

"I'll vote for anyone except Evo Morales," said Eduardo Cuenca, a 45-year-old cab driver and father of three who has lost work as protesters regularly shut down the capital's streets. "Evo means more street shutdowns and more drugs and criminality."

The two candidates have demonstrated a personal antipathy. "I don't debate with liars," Morales responds repeatedly when asked why he won't accept Quiroga's challenge to a public debate.

Morales has repeatedly fought allegations that he has used Venezuelan money for his campaign, while Quiroga has denied reports of secret U.S. funding.

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