LA PAZ - Bolivians vote Sunday in a high-stakes presidential election redo that could determine its democratic future and bring a return of socialism to the country as it struggles with a raging pandemic and protests over last year's annulled ballot.
Bolivia, once one of the most politically volatile countries in Latin America, experienced a rare period of stability under former President Evo Morales, the country's first Indigenous president who resigned and fled the country late last year after his claimed election win was annulled amid allegations of fraud. His ouster set off a period of unrest that caused at least 36 deaths. Morales called his ouster a coup.
Sunday's vote is a rerun of last year's election and an attempt to reset Bolivia's democracy.
"Bolivia's new executive and legislative leaders will face daunting challenges in a polarized country, ravaged by COVID-19, and hampered by endemically weak institutions," said WOLA, a Washington-based human rights advocacy organization.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged Bolivians to respect the electoral process, and in particular the final result.
Ballots, ballot boxes and other materials were delivered to polling stations Saturday by police and military units without incident, officials said. Police and soldiers took to the streets hours later seeking to ensure calm.
The country's Supreme Electoral Court announced late Saturday that it had decided unanimously against reporting running preliminary vote totals as ballots are counted. It said it wanted to avoid the uncertainty that arose when there was a long halt in reporting preliminary results during last year's election.
Council President Salvador Romero said promised a safe and transparent official count, which could take five days.
To win in the first round, a candidate needs more than 50% of the vote, or 40% with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the second-place candidate. A runoff vote, if necessary, would be held Nov. 28.
Bolivia's entire 136-member Legislative Assembly also will be voted in.
The election was postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. On a per capita basis, few countries have been hit harder than impoverished, landlocked Bolivia: Nearly 8,400 of its 11.6 million people have died of COVID-19.
The election will occur with physical distancing required between masked voters - at least officially, if not in practice.
The leading contenders are former Economy Minister Luis Arce, who led an extended boom under Morales, and former President Carlos Mesa. a centrist historian and journalist who was second to Morales in the disputed returns released after last year's vote. Trailing in all the polls has been Luis Fernando Camacho, a conservative businessman who helped lead last year's uprising, as well as a Korean-born evangelist.
Overshadowing the vote is the absence of Morales, who led Bolivia from 2006 until 2019 and was a key figure in the bloc of leftist leaders who held power across much of South America.
Morales, now exiled in Argentina, was barred from running for the presidency or even the Senate by electoral authorities following his ouster.
He chose Arce as his stand-in for the Movement Toward Socialism party, and a win by the party would be seen as a victory for Latin America's left.
A boyhood llama herder who became prominent leading a coca grower's union, Morales had been immensely popular while overseeing an export-led economic surge that reduced poverty during most of his term. But support was eroding due to his reluctance to leave power, increasing authoritarian impulses and a series of corruption scandals.
He shrugged aside a public vote that had set term limits, and competed in the October 2019 presidential vote, which he claimed to have narrowly won outright. But a lengthy pause in reporting results fed suspicions of fraud and nationwide protests broke out.
When police and military leaders suggested he leave, Morales resigned and fled the country.
Conservative Sen. Jeanne Anez proclaimed herself president and was accepted by the courts. Her administration, despite lacking a majority in congress, set about trying to prosecute Morales and key aides while undoing his policies, helping prompt more unrest and polarization.
She dropped out at as a candidate for Sunday's presidential election while trailing badly in polls.
Most polls have shown Arce with a lead, though likely not enough to avoid a runoff.
There is a strong chance the next president will struggle with a divided congress - and perhaps worse, an opposition that refuses to recognize defeat.