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Bolivia Prepares For Its Long-Awaited Presidential Election

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bolivia's presidential election is tomorrow. And the atmosphere surrounding it may sound familiar - fears of voter fraud, worries about violence and a deeply polarized country, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Glenda Yanez is getting ready for Bolivia's election day in the same way you'd prepare for an earthquake. She's stocking up.

GLENDA YANEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She says she's bought lots of rice and sugar and plans to slaughter a cow to feed her three kids in case the shops run out of meat. Yanez is in Bolivia's capital, La Paz, talking to NPR from a gas station. She's lining up to buy emergency fuel supplies just in case there's violence and everything shuts down.

YANEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: People are desperate, says Yanez. They don't know what might happen in the next few days. Bolivians go to the polls tomorrow amid an unprecedented crisis. The pandemic's causing havoc. So are politics.

EDUARDO GAMARRA: In my three decades of writing and studied Bolivia, I have never seen it this polarized.

REEVES: Eduardo Gamarra is professor of politics at Florida International University in Miami. He's from Bolivia and believes the country is at a crossroads.

GAMARRA: It's really going through a major transition to either a more stable Bolivia or an incredibly, incredibly unstable set of years to come.

REEVES: Gamarra says, if the first round is tight and there are allegations of fraud...

GAMARRA: It could be very dangerous - very, very dangerous - because it's, in fact, a repetition of last year's scenario.

REEVES: He's talking about last November. That's when Evo Morales was driven from power after 14 years. Morales was Bolivia's first Indigenous president, a socialist admired by leftists worldwide. He stepped down amid mass protests triggered by U.S.-supported allegations that he rigged last year's election. Morales was replaced by an unelected interim president, Jeanine Anez, a hardline conservative Christian.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

GAMARRA: Morales' supporters took to the streets, accusing her of a coup. Anez cracked down. Twenty-three people were killed after government security forces fired into crowds.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: This week, thousands of Morales supporters gathered anew for a final election rally in La Paz by his Socialist Party. Morales is in exile in Argentina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIS ARCE: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: This crowd is listening to his replacement, the party's presidential candidate, Luis Arce. Arce is 57. He used to be Morales' economy minister. Polls ahead of tomorrow's vote give Arce a commanding lead. Although unreliable, they suggest he even has an outside chance of winning in the first round. Arce's nearest rival is Carlos Mesa, a celebrated journalist and historian who's seen as a centrist. Mesa served briefly as president before Morales rose to power. Analysts say if the election goes to a second round, the socialists opponents will unify, making Mesa the clear favorite. Bolivians are watching and worrying.

JORGE DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Everything so uncertain, says Jorge Davila, a civil engineer, age 32. He's considering leaving Bolivia because of the turmoil. Glenda Yanez, the woman lining up at the gas station, has no plans to go anywhere. Yanez is one of millions of Indigenous Bolivians who benefited from the Morales years. She hopes the Socialists will return to power without Morales.

YANEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: We need new young leaders, she says, and a peaceful election day. Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILAL FEAT. KIMBRA SONG, "HOLDING IT BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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