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World

Bolivians Vote Whether To Give Evo Morales 4th Term

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Evo Morales of Bolivia is running for a fourth consecutive term in tomorrow's election. His main rival is Carlos Mesa, who briefly served as president a decade and a half ago. Morales is the frontrunner. Mesa is appealing to voters by painting the president as a budding authoritarian. Reporter John Otis has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Carlos Mesa takes the stage at a packed campaign rally in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. The opposition candidate then leads the crowd in a chant.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

CARLOS MESA: (Chanting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: In Spanish, they're saying enough already. That's a reference to the nearly 14 years that Evo Morales has held the presidency. He'll get another five years in office if he's reelected on Sunday.

MESA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Back at his hotel, Mesa tells NPR this is an authoritarian government. If Morales remains in power, Bolivia will be moving towards dictatorship. Morales's Socialist Party controls all branches of government and much of the news media. He also ignored the results of a 2016 referendum in which voters rejected his bid to change the constitution so he could run for a fourth term. Instead, Morales appealed to the nation's highest court, which, critics contend, is packed with his allies. The judges abolished term limits allowing his candidacy to go forward.

MESA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mesa says these strong-arm tactics show how far the president is willing to go to remain in power. Many Bolivians who voted against Morales in the referendum agree.

FABRICO PASTOR: (Speaking Spanish).

MESA: Morales is mocking the will of the people, says veterinarian Fabricio Pastor. He plans to cast his ballot for Mesa. But Mesa, a 66-year-old historian and centrist politician, has his own baggage. He was elected vice president in 2002 and became president the next year when his predecessor was forced to resign. But Mesa lacked support in Congress and faced nationwide protests from people demanding that he nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry. Morales helped lead the demonstrations against Mesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MESA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: With the country paralyzed, Mesa announced in a televised address that he was resigning after just 18 months in office.

Remind me of what his presidency was like. It was short...

GONZALO MENDIETA: It was short. It was unstable. He wasn't able to manage the country.

OTIS: That's Bolivian political analyst Gonzalo Mendieta.

MENDIETA: I think it's remembered here as a bad government. Even Mesa (laughter) will tend to agree with what I say.

OTIS: By contrast, Morales has brought stability and steady economic growth to Bolivia. Poverty has been cut by about half since he first took office in 2006. An Aymara Indian, Morales also enjoys wide support among the country's indigenous groups, who make up more than 40% of Bolivia's population.

MESA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mesa admits that Morales has done good things for Bolivia and that, as the country's first indigenous head of state, his presidency has been historic. Still, he insists that rescuing democracy must now be the country's top priority. Polls show Morales ahead of Mesa, his closest rival in a nine-candidate race. But to win an outright victory in Sunday's first-round election, Morales must garner at least 40% of the vote and beat Mesa by at least 10 points. If not, the winner will be decided in a December runoff. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.