The first round of Bolivia’s presidential election, set to take place this Sunday, comes at a crucial moment.
Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism, is likely to top the polls.
He is the candidate most closely associated with the movement that six months ago toppled right wing president Carlos Mesa.
That movement demanded the nationalisation of the country’s gas and oil—the second largest reserves in Latin America.
This huge potential wealth is seen as the means through which ordinary Bolivians, 60 percent of whom live on less than $1 a day, could be dragged out of poverty.
The movement also demanded a constitutional assembly to enshrine the rights of indigenous people, who make up two-thirds of the population of Bolivia. They have suffered racial discrimination for centuries.
The other two main candidates in the election stand for a continuation of the neo-liberal policies that have seen a growing gulf between rich and poor.
May and June this year saw hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants descend on the capital, La Paz, and the neighbouring city of El Alto.
Jorge Churac, a member of one of the groups that coordinated the action in El Alto, told Socialist Worker, “This is the first time that we have had an indigenous person, Evo Morales, standing for president.
“In the past everyone has stood for the rich and the military. We have expectations that an indigenous person can change the country.”
In order to win in the first round Morales would have to get over 50 percent of the vote.
If none of the candidates reach this target it will be left to the country’s congress, which will meet in January, to decide who becomes president.
If Morales’s main rival, Jorge Quiroga, secures enough support in the congress to take the presidency it will spark rage from the population.
Many in Bolivia already have grave doubts about the whole political system.
Maria Tironade Copa of the El Alto confederation of women said that if Morales is blocked, “we will mobilise, march, blockade and strike”.
Even if he does become president, Morales will face enormous pressure to deliver real change. Jorge Churac said, “If Morales does not carry through the programme of the movement he will not last six months. There will be a great uprising—hunger will talk.”
But he will also face another kind of pressure—from Bolivia’s powerful elite, the US, multinationals and the International Monetary Fund.
Jose Monesinos, a former miners’ leader who led a neighbourhood assembly in El Alto in 2003 said, “Morales’s advisors have been reassuring everyone—the businessmen and so on.”
Despite Morales’s pledges to be “responsible” if elected, the elite of the oil and gas rich region of Santa Cruz have threatened to declare autonomy.
This has raised the prospect of civil war.
Whatever happens in the elections, new confrontations seem inevitable.