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'We're not used to debating': Rare Bolivia election standoff fizzles as vote nears

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LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s presidential candidates faced off late on Saturday in the first all-party campaign debate in almost two decades, but analysts chided the runners as having forgotten how to hold a proper discourse after a tepid event.

The landlocked Andean nation is headed for elections on Oct. 18, a re-run of a fraught vote last year that sparked deadly protests and led to the resignation of leader Evo Morales. The leftist did not participate in election debates since 2002.

In a televised debate focused on the country’s economic future, the seven presidential candidates largely stuck to laying out their policy platforms, with few clashes or exchanges between the runner, despite a background of political tensions.

“We are not used to debating,” one analyst wrote in local media in response to the event. “A debate must have a confrontation on a specific issue... It ended in a boring way with each of the candidates just repeating their script.”

Gonzalo Chávez, another political analyst, said the fact Morales had eschewed debates while in power between 2006-2019 had weakened the space for political discourse.

“There was great expectation of a tough debate, but there was no such thing,” Chávez said.

Bolivia’s 7 million voters will go the polls in a fortnight, with the ballot overshadowed by a tough economic outlook and the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country hard.

The candidate for Morales’ socialist MAS party, Luis Arce, currently leads polls ahead of centrist Carlos Mesa, though forecasts indicate there would need to be a second-round run-off between the pair. Morales himself is living in Argentina.

There is another debate planned for Sunday night, though the candidate for MAS is not yet confirmed to attend.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing Adam Jourdan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker