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LATIN AMERICA | 19-10-2020 15:34

Evo Morales says he will return to Bolivia after ally's election victory

"Sooner or later we are going to return to Bolivia, that is not up for debate," exiled Bolivian leader tells a press conference in Buenos Aires.

Exiled former president Evo Morales on Monday signalled his intention to return to Bolivia after his leftist heir Luis Arce's sweeping presidential election victory.

"Sooner or later we are going to return to Bolivia, that is not up for debate," Morales told a press conference in Buenos Aires.

Luis Arce, a former economy minister under the indigenous leader, claimed victory in Sunday's election after exit polls suggested a crushing victory over centrist rival Carlos Mesa.

Mesa conceded Monday, saying Arce's 20-point margin of victory was "very forceful and very clear."

"It is up to us, as befits those of us who believe in democracy... to recognise that there has been a winner in this election," said Mesa, a former president.

Exit polls handed over 52 percent of the vote to Arce, with Mesa mustering just 31.5 percent – upending predictions he would force a second round run-off in November.

Private polling companies showed Arce winning by a similar margin. Official results are expected to take days.

Arce, 57, said his victory was a "return to democracy" for the divided South American country.

"We have recovered democracy and we will regain stability and social peace," he said.

The result could also have big regional implications – it is bound to reenergise Latin America's left, whose anthem of economic justice has broad appeal in a region where poverty is expected to surge to 37 percent this year, according to United Nations data.

Eyes on Evo

Much attention now focuses on Morales, whose authoritarian 14-year grip on power left a bitter aftertaste from many Bolivians outside his largely-indigenous Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. 

"Sooner or later we are going to return to Bolivia, that is not up for debate," Morales told a press conference in Buenos Aires.

"My great desire is to return to Bolivia and enter my region. It is a matter of time," said Morales, who was ousted amid protests after his victory in 2019 elections was annulled over rigging allegations.

Like Arce, he took a conciliatory tone on Monday and called for “a great meeting of reconciliation for reconstruction.”

“We are not vengeful,” he said.

He declined to say if he would have a role in the government. But few expect him to sit by idly.

“Arce is not Morales, but the question is, who is going to govern Bolivia facing the approaching crisis," said political science professor Franklin Pareja.

Morales resigned on November 10 after losing the support of the Armed Forces in the midst of the crisis, that left 36 dead and hundreds wounded.

Thwarted in his attempt to secure a fourth term, he initially fled to Mexico but has since settled in Argentina following President Alberto Fernández's election victory last December.

Morales thanked Fernández and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for their support. 

He also hailed congratulatory messages from other leftist leaders, Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro and former Uruguayan president José Mujica.

He said he had been pleased to get a call from Pope Francis on Monday. 

"I felt that I was not alone," he said, discussing the call from the Argentine pontiff.

Economic architect

Arce was credited as the architect of the country's economic miracle under Morales, who became the country's first indigenous president in 2006.

Over the next decade he slashed poverty levels and modernised the country's infrastructure boosted by demand for Bolivia's natural resources.

The election, twice postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, was the first in 20 years not to feature Morales, though he remained a looming presence.

Arce's opponents had warned that a MAS victory would herald the return of the ex-president, who faces arrest in Bolivia on terrorism charges after the right-wing interim government accused him of directing anti-government protests from exile.

He is also being investigated for alleged "rape and trafficking" over allegations he had relationships with underage girls.

Morales dismissed the accusations on Monday, saying they were "part of a dirty war" being waged against him.

Arce's victory will bring to an end the year-long interim presidency of conservative Jeanine Áñez, who withdrew from the race a month ago as criticism rose of her handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 8,400 people dead and infected 130,000.

Her government has been accused of intimidation of MAS party supporters and Morales' associates.

Áñez asked Arce “to govern with Bolivia and democracy in mind.”

Economic crisis

Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the region despite its rich natural resources, is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 40 years with GDP expected to contract by 6.2 percent in 2020.

Arce, who oversaw a surge in growth and a sharp reduction in poverty as economy minister for more than a decade, will struggle 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 nation 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, 57, also faces the challenge of emerging from the long shadow of his former boss, who remains polarising 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.

The MAS leader may have benefited from overreach and errors by Morales’ enemies. Áñez's administration, despite lacking a majority in Congress, set about trying to prosecute Morales and key aides while undoing his policies, prompting more unrest and polarisation.

“A lot of people said if this is the alternative being offered, I prefer to go back to the way things were,” said Andrés Gómez, a political scientist based in La Paz.

– TIMES/AFP/AP

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