PRESIDENTIAL VOTE COULD ALTER BOLIVIA, AND STRAIN TIES WITH U.S.
LA PAZ, Bolivia - Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday with the possibility of transforming this isolated Andean country, where frequent uprisings have toppled two presidents in the past two years.
The leading candidate, Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and an ally of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, promises to exert greater state control over natural gas reserves and decriminalize the cultivation of coca, from which cocaine is made.
Polls have put Mr. Morales five percentage points ahead of the next contender, Jorge Quiroga, a former president who recommends open trade to help Bolivia extricate itself from poverty. A third candidate, Samuel Doria Medina, is a La Paz cement magnate who owns Bolivia's Burger King restaurants.
A candidate must capture more than 50 percent of the vote to win the presidency outright. If that does not happen, Bolivia's new Congress - - all 157 seats in the bicameral legislature are also up for grabs - will choose between the top finishers.
The system is considered anachronistic and, in theory, an obstacle to the political ambitions of Mr. Morales, 46, who went from leader of the coca growers' union to internationally known opponent of globalization. But political analysts believe it could be politically calamitous for the Congress not to select Mr. Morales as president if he wins a plurality.
"If Evo wins by a significant difference, and a significant difference is 5 percent or above, there is nobody who can take the presidency away from him," said Eduardo Gamarra, the Bolivian-born director of Latin American affairs at Florida International University. But if the margin is tighter, Mr. Gamarra said, Mr. Quiroga could be chosen.
For the Bush administration, the prospect of Mr. Morales in the presidency is seen as a potentially serious setback in the war on drugs, one which could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in American anti-drug, economic and development aid.
Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington on Thursday that the United States would take its time to evaluate its relationship with Bolivia. "We'll see what policies that person pursues," he said. "And based on that, we'll make an evaluation of what kind of relationship we're going to have with that state."
Political analysts say Mr. Morales, an adept campaigner, charged ahead in part because Mr. Quiroga failed to highlight his accomplishments as vice president and president, when he helped strike a trade deal with the United States that has stoked exports. Mr. Quiroga, an American-educated engineer, left office in 2002 with a high popularity rating.
Mr. Morales has offered few details about how he would govern. Much of his campaigning has focused on what he sees as the evils of capitalism, including the development of Colombia's natural gas reserves by foreign companies.
"On natural resources," he said in a recent interview, "we are the owners of this noble land, and it is not possible that they be in the hands of the transnationals."
Whoever wins will face a divided country in which even the majority indigenous population appears split. Many radical groups see in Mr. Morales less an indigenous stalwart than a consummate insider who could sell them out.
One senator from Mr. Morales's own party, Roman Loayza, said this week that whoever won would have three months to nationalize the energy industry and press forward on rewriting the Constitution, or face crippling protests. "This is not something we are saying just to the neoliberals, but also to our brother, Evo," he said. "For that reason, he has to be ready to respond to the people."
2005 The New York Times Company