Bolivia election race heats up as field tightens

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s presidential election race, a re-run of a fraught ballot last year that plunged the Andean country into turmoil, has tightened after interim President Jeanine Anez dropped out, likely helping rein in the front-running socialist party.

The withdrawal of Anez, who took power in a vacuum last year, will strengthen other centrist and conservative runners, who are behind in the polls against Luis Arce, the candidate of former leftist President Evo Morales’ MAS party.

Morales was forced to step down last year after allegations of electoral fraud sparked widespread protests. Morales, currently in Argentina, has said he was toppled in a coup.

The withdrawal should boost Carlos Mesa, who placed second behind Morales in the since annulled 2019 election. Anez had around 10% of the likely vote, according to a recent major poll.

“(Mesa) is likely to attract the tactical vote and cement his position as the leading candidate that can force a second round and unite the anti-MAS vote,” said Rodrigo Riaza, a Latin America analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Anez has not yet endorsed another candidate and Mesa said on Friday he was the only candidate that could take on MAS.

Arce leads the pack with around 40% of the vote, the recent poll before Anez’s withdrawal showed, while Mesa had around 26%.

A candidate needs 40% of the vote and a 10-point lead to claim outright victory in the first round.

The Oct. 18 election will be key to the direction of the landlocked country, which under Morales was an ally of Venezuela and Cuba, but which under Anez has swung dramatically toward the right, including rekindling ties with the United States.

“People are aware that the future of the country is at stake in these elections,” said Roberto Luna, a resident of La Paz. “The right does not have arguments or a political program with a vision for the country.”

Other voters still scarred by the deadly violence that broke around the last election, said they wanted to avoid Morales’ party coming back into power. He had been criticized for seeking a fourth term despite constitutional limits.

“Many citizens, many provinces no longer want to know of MAS, they are tired of so many abnormal situations that occurred in the 14 years of the government,” said Boris Alcón, a resident of the city of El Alto.

Riaza, the analyst, said that the end of Anez’s controversial candidacy - she has initially ruled herself out - would ease concerns around the legitimacy of the result, but the risk of further political crisis remained high.]

“The political climate is highly polarized and ripe for social unrest. There is a real chance election results could be disputed again, which could trigger widespread protests and threaten a smooth transition of power.”

Reporting by Daniel Ramos in La Paz; writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Tom Brown