Bolivians test process in election


Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
LA PAZ, Bolivia - A mining executive and a former military captain appeared to be in a tight presidential race Sunday in an election seen as a test for democracy in South America's poorest country.
Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, president from 1993-1997 and a multimillionaire owner of Bolivia's largest mining company, is estimated by exit polls to have 22.6 percent of the vote, while four-time Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa has 21.6 percent.
Since no candidate is likely to get the 50 percent plus one vote that is required for outright victory - something that has not happened before - the president will be chosen by the 157 members of the new Congress from the top two vote-getters in time for the Aug. 6 presidential inauguration.
Despair over the worsening economy and rising crime has driven many voters toward candidates advocating radical change in Sunday's presidential and congress elections.
Reyes Villa says he favors a "social revolution" and "moving beyond" the country's free market system but has been short on specifics, leaving some to wonder how much he would truly change the status quo.
"I think he has really good intentions," said Pedro Lopez, a 40-year-old accountant who voted for Reyes Villa. "And he's never been president, so we have yet to see if he's just like the others who've already shown us they don't follow through on their promises."
Sanchez de Lozada, known by his nickname Goni, is responsible for much of Bolivia's capitalization. He is seen by many voters as the most conservative way to pull Bolivia out of its current economic crisis.
Coming in third with 16.8 percent, according to the exit poll results, was Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian who is the controversial leader of Bolivia's coca farmers.
Close behind with 15.4 percent was Jaime Paz Zamora, a social democrat who has appealed to voters with a plan that would see shares of Bolivian gas returned to the state.
"I voted for Paz Zamora because he's going to create jobs for Bolivians," said Patricia Lima, 32 and unemployed.
At least six of every 10 Bolivians live in poverty, and in rural areas it's nine out of 10. Violent crime, including bank robberies, kidnappings and bombings, are on the rise in a nation once known for its tranquility.
Police patrolled the streets of the Bolivian capital, enforcing a national law that prohibits unauthorized traffic on election day. The ban was designed to keep political parties from transporting groups of voters around the city to cast multiple ballots. But families on foot filled the city plazas despite strong winds and cold, winter weather, and children rode their bikes down the main avenues.
"The atmosphere is quite calm in most parts of the country," said Elizabeth Spehar, chief of the Organization of American States' mission overseeing the elections with about 60 observers throughout the country. "There's been a really good volume of voters, and only very small, isolated incidents of friction."
Polling stations began filling up only after the final match for soccer's World Cup ended and supporters of victorious South American neighbor, Brazil, had a chance to run into the streets to celebrate.
Crowds of people filled the voting centers, where volunteers held shut white plastic curtains around the voters as they marked their ballots.
Ice cream salesman Simon Tarqui said he doesn't trust any of the top three candidates. He said he voted for Morales, who he says is more in tune with the Bolivian reality.
Morales has reached out to voters like Tarqui who are disillusioned with traditional politicians. He was expelled from Congress last year on accusations of inciting violence.
Morales' popularity has surged from 4 percent to 12 percent in the last month on his left-wing promises to overturn the country's free-market economy and eject what he terms "imperialist Yankees." Though he is unlikely to become president, members of his Movement Toward Socialism party are expected to be voted into Congress.
Term limits prevented Jorge Quiroga from running again as president in this nation of 8.3 million. Quiroga took over when President Hugo Banzer resigned last year after being diagnosed with cancer.

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