Bolivians Vote for President

Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president. The polls were called after two presidents were toppled in as many years by often violent unrest by indigenous Bolivians protesting free-market reforms that have failed to alleviate poverty.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Bolivia today, voters go to the polls in a presidential election. The opposition says it hopes the results will extend political gains the left has made elsewhere in Latin America. A leading opposition candidate, Evo Morales, champions the indigenous people and local coca growers. He's in a tight race with a conservative who briefly served as president four years ago. From La Paz, NPR's Julie McCarthy has more on an election that Washington is watching closely and that many Bolivians consider a turning point for their country.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Sky-high La Paz is an Andean city short on oxygen, but not on the hot air of presidential campaigns. Debates draw rowdy crowds.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

McCARTHY: For the candidate who can't be bothered to actually stop, there is what might be called the drive-by rally.

(Soundbite of crowd and fireworks)

McCARTHY: But for novelty, nothing beats Bolivia's television show, "It's Forbidden To Lie." The candidates stand before a mirror on live TV while the host asks questions like...

(Soundbite from "It's Forbidden To Lie")

Unidentified Host: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `Have you ever wanted a job in television?'

A youthful Jorge Quiroga(ph), a leading conservative, blinks back, `I never even watch myself on TV. I'm too busy,' he says.

Evo Morales is evidently too busy to be bothered with such shows or the candidate debates, which he has spurned. But his go-it-alone style hasn't hurt him. Polls show Morales leading a field of eight candidates. He draws his strongest support from the poor, indigenous population who rally, shouting his name, challenging centuries-old political structures.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Crowd (In unison): Evo, Evo, Evo, Evo...

McCARTHY: His face bares the broad plains of his fellow Indians, the high plateau. Morales says that, as president, he would follow the ancient laws of his forebearers.

Mr. EVO MORALES (Conservative): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `My agreement with you,' he says, `will be to govern with the commandments left by our ancestors: ama shua, ama llulla and ama qella,' meaning don't lie, don't steal and don't be lazy. Morales then leads a chant.

Mr. MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `Hail to the political instruments of sovereignty! Hail to our movement towards socialism! Hail to coca!' he says.

The prospect of Morales becoming president--he would be Bolivia's first indigenous head of state--rattles Washington. Morales dislikes free trade pacts and ardently defends the cultivation of coca for traditional use. Chewing the leafy green plant is a centuries-old cure for hunger here. But the former coca farmer also says that he, too, wants to stop the production of cocaine. Tensions are evident as Morales tells supporters that the US must not interfere in Bolivian affairs.

Mr. MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `The fight to change our history and recoup our national resources will not stop,' he says. `If the government of the United Stats is democratic, they will respect the clamor of the people and the triumph of Bolivia's poor, indigenous and workers,' he says.

(Soundbite of applause, fireworks and music)

McCARTHY: At the closing rally of his campaign, former president and free marketeer Jorge Quiroga taps into fears that many Bolivians from the country's relatively prosperous east harbor about Morales, his agenda and his sometimes explosive political activism. The coca growers Morales leads are at the vanguard of popular discontent, deploying blockades to jam roads that have paralyzed commerce.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Former President JORGE QUIROGA (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `There are two roads to choose,' Quiroga tells thousands of supporters at his campaign finale, `one road that goes backwards, that divides Bolivia and that loses markets and jobs and keeps us underdeveloped, and the other road that brings us forward with unity to progress and open markets and development. When you vote,' he says through a strained voice, `forget the resentments and feel in your heart what is best for you future.'

Patricia Tepseros(ph) says Quiroga, who happened to attend school in the US, is best for Bolivia. A business woman from a prominent Bolivian family, Tepseros left the rally saying Evo Morales represents a sector out of touch with modern times.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PATRICIA TEPSEROS: He could be the president. Yes, I am worried. But I am Bolivian. I am as Bolivian as him, and here I stay and here I work. OK?

McCARTHY: No candidate is expected to win an outright majority in today's voting. In that event, the task of choosing Bolivia's next president would fall to congress. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, La Paz, Bolivia.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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