Evo Morales' handpicked successor, Luis Arce, claimed victory on Monday in a presidential election that appeared to reject the right-wing policies of the interim government that took power in Bolivia after the leftist leader resigned and fled the country a year ago.
Officials released no formal, comprehensive quick count of results from Sunday's vote, but two independent surveys of selected polling places showed Arce, with a lead of roughly 20 percentage points over his closest rival — far more than needed to avoid a runoff.
"We still have no official count, but according to the data we have, Mr. Arce (and his running mate) have won the election," interim President Jeanine Áñez — an archrival of Morales — said on Twitter. "I congratulate the winners and I ask them to govern with Bolivia and democracy in mind."
Arce, meanwhile, appealed for calm in the bitterly divided nation saying he would seek to form a government of national unity under his Movement Toward Socialism party.
"I think the Bolivian people want to retake the path we were on," Arce declared around midnight surrounded by a small group of supporters, some of them in traditional Andean dress in honor of the country's Indigenous roots.
Pre-election polls had showed Arce ahead but lacking enough votes to avoid a November runoff, likely against centrist former President Carlos Mesa. To win in the first round, a candidate needs more than 50% of the vote, or 40% with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the second-place candidate.
The independent counts showed Arce with a little over 50% of the vote and a roughly 20 point advantage over Mesa.
Even so, early returns — with 16% counted — from the formal official count had Mesa with a 44% to 35% lead over Arce on Monday. Those votes appeared to be largely from urban areas rather than the rural heartlands that have been the base of Morales' support.
Arce, who oversaw a surge in growth and a sharp reduction in poverty as Morales' economy minister for more than a decade, will face an uphill battle trying to reignite that growth.
The boom in prices for Bolivia's mineral exports that helped feed that progress has faded, and the new coronavirus has hit the impoverished, landlocked Bolivia harder than almost any other country on a per capita basis. Nearly 8,400 of its 11.6 million people have died of COVID-19.
Arce also faces the challenge of emerging from the long shadow of his former boss, who remains polarizing but whose support enabled the low-key, UK-educated economist to mount a strong campaign.
Áñez.s government tried to overturn many of Morales' policies and wrench the country away from its leftist alliances. Newly installed electoral authorities barred Morales from running in Sunday's election, even for a seat in congress, and he faces prosecution on what are seen as trumped-up charges of terrorism if he returns home.
Few expect the sometimes-irascible politician to sit by idly in a future Arce government.
Bolivia, once one of the most politically volatile countries in Latin America, experienced a rare period of stability for 14 years under Morales, the country's first Indigenous president.
A boyhood llama herder who became prominent leading a coca grower's union, Morales had been immensely popular while overseeing an export-led economic surge. But support was eroding due to his reluctance to leave power, increasing authoritarian impulses and a series of corruption scandals.
He shrugged aside a public vote that had set term limits, and competed in the October 2019 presidential vote, which he claimed to have narrowly won outright. But a lengthy pause in reporting results fed suspicions of fraud and nationwide protests followed, leading to the deaths of at least 36 people.
When police and military leaders suggested he leave, Morales resigned and fled the country, along with several key aides. Morales called his ouster a coup.
Hoping to avoid similar confusion this time, electoral authorities said they would not release a quick count of results — merely the slow-moving official tally that they said could take five days.
All seats in the 136-member Legislative Assembly also were also being contested, with results expected to echo the presidential race.
"Bolivia's new executive and legislative leaders will face daunting challenges in a polarized country, ravaged by COVID-19, and hampered by endemically weak institutions," said the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights advocacy organization.
Morales led Bolivia from 2006 until 2019 and was the last survivor of the so-called "pink wave" of leftist leaders that swept into power across South America, including Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
Although outrage with corruption fueled a resurgence in right-wing politics, notably in Brazil, Arce's victory is bound to reenergize the left, whose anthem of economic justice has broad appeal in a region where poverty is expected to surge to 37% this year, according to the United Nations.
Arce may have benefited from overreach and errors by Morales' enemies. Áñez, a conservative senator, proclaimed herself interim president amid last year's tumult and was accepted by the courts. Her administration, despite lacking a majority in congress, set about trying to prosecute Morales and key aides while undoing his policies, prompting more unrest and polarization.
"A lot of people said if this is the alternative being offered, I prefer to go back to the way things were," said Andres Gomez, a political scientist based in La Paz.
Áñez dropped out at as a candidate for Sunday's presidential election while trailing badly in polls. That boosted Mesa, who governed Bolivia following the resignation in 2003 of former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada amid widespread protests.
The Trump administration, which celebrated Morales' departure as a watershed moment for democracy in Latin America, has been more cautious as Morales' handpicked successor surged in the polls. A senior State Department official this week said the U.S. is ready to work with whomever Bolivians select in a free and fair vote.
By Carlos Valdez and Joshua Goodman/AP