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Bolivians Prepare to Elect New Government - 2002-06-29

When Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government, as many as one in five could vote for indigenous leaders. The rise of new political forces are fueling demands for change in the form of government and endangering Bolivia's free market economic model.

Bolivia's general elections on June 30 will pave the way for a change of government on the August 6. Elections for the president, vice-president, senate and congress are all decided for the next five years from this one voting opportunity.

Eleven presidential hopefuls are candidates in the election. Front-runner in voter polls is a former army captain Manfred Reyes Villa of the Nueva Fuerza Republicana who is likely to emerge the winner. Mr. Reyes has been mayor of the country's third largest city Cochabamba for much of the last ten years.

His support has grown strongly on the back of populist promises to turn back free market economic policies. Mr. Reyes' relatively new party is also benefiting from a protest vote against the established political elite, which has suffered from a seemingly endless string of failures and corruption scandals in recent years.

But despite Mr. Reyes new found popularity, it will not be enough for him to gain an overall majority. Many Bolivians remain suspicious that he represents more of the same old-style of politics that he has promised to replace. With no outright winner, political pactmaking over the next five weeks and a vote in congress will eventually decide the composition of the new government, and which of the two highest polling candidates becomes president.

The votes of Evo Morales of the socialist MAS party and to a lesser extent Felipe Quispe of the indigenous MIP party, could make them kingmakers in political deal-making following the election. Mr. Morales and Mr. Quispe have been at the center of conflicts with the government in the last two years, and are best known for their ability to mobilize nation-halting protests. But both candidates have said they will not participate in a government run by Bolivia's traditional political parties.

Evo Morales has won popularity from a platform that defies U.S.-backed coca crop eradication efforts. He was even expelled from congress after being blamed for riots in which seven people died last September. Nervous about his rising popularity, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, warned Bolivians this week that a vote for Mr. Morales could jeopardize U.S. aid and access to U.S. markets. The warning produced an angry backlash from the leadership of all the main political parties, viewed as it was as an attempt to interfere in Bolivia's democratic process.

The new government faces other problems. A spiraling public spending deficit and dangerously high levels of borrowing, leaving little room for maneuvering to meet populist spending promises. Both the MAS and MIP parties are also determined that questions of land reform and re-nationalization of certain industries are adopted by the incoming government. Whatever the outcome, a belligerent opposition will make governing the country more difficult over the coming five years.