An indigenous woman signs after casting her vote at a polling station in Huarina, Bolivia

LA PAZ – Voters headed to the polls Sunday amidst high tension in Bolivia, with some expecting social upheaval for the second time in a year no matter who wins the general election.

Matters weren’t helped late Saturday night when the Electoral Tribunal announced it was suspending the rapid count because it couldn’t guarantee the accuracy of those results.

Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate Luis Arce, who has consistently led opinion polls since he was nominated in January, said as he voted in La Paz that the decision was “not very wise” as it “could generate doubts.”

“It’s not ideal but we understand that (the electoral body) has chosen the path to guaranteeing absolute security of the vote and above all the official count,” said centrist former president Carlos Mesa, who has been running second in polls and is expected to face Arce in a run-off next month.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (1200 GMT) in an election that will not feature former president Evo Morales for the first time in 20 years.

It comes a year after Morales won an unconstitutional fourth term in an election that sparked weeks of protests.

The rapid count in 2019 suggested there would be no outright winner, but after it was inexplicably frozen for 24 hours, Morales had jumped into a winning lead over Mesa once the live count resumed.

A later audit by the Organization of American States found clear evidence of fraud.

– ‘Result must be respected’ –

Morales, who resigned and fled into exile, is barred from taking part and has been guilty of trying to ratchet up tensions on social media from his base in Argentina.

MAS has warned of a pending “fraud” and threatened to protest should they not get their way, while misinformation has been circulating freely.

But Morales struck a different tone on Sunday, saying “the election result must be respected by everyone.”

“It’s very important that all Bolivians and political parties wait calmly for every single vote… to be counted,” added Morales, who was in power from 2006 to 2019.

He also promised to return to Bolivia — where he is being investigated for “rape and trafficking” over allegations he had relationships with underage girls, and even fathered a child with one — “the next day” should his former finance minister Arce win.

Voting, which is mandatory up to the age of 60, was slow, with long queues of people respecting social distancing rules imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

People queued up since dawn and some, such as in Huarina on the shores of Lake Titicaca, sat on the ground while waiting their turn.

“I hope the next president will be a candidate who helps the countryside, the poor people,” Silverio Chirinos, a 69-year-old farmer, told AFP.

However, given the bitter and polarized build-up to an election that was twice postponed due to the virus outbreak, some are expecting trouble.

“Obviously there will be social upheaval… we just hope it won’t last long,” Clara Quitalba, 49, from the MAS bastion of EL Alto on the outskirts of La Paz, told AFP.

“I don’t know what will happen, but I fear the worst,” said Virginia Luna, 41, in La Paz.

Last year’s protests left 36 dead and 800 injured.

Observer missions from the European Union, OAS and the Carter Center are present, while United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres has called for the result to be respected.

– ‘End of a cycle’ –

Arce is expected to win Sunday’s first round, but the question is whether the 57-year-old can achieve the required 40 percent of votes with a 10-point lead to avoid a run-off.

If not, polls suggest Mesa, 67, would triumph in a run-off with support from the other four candidates.

The vote will bring to an end the year-long interim presidency of conservative Jeanine Anez, 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.

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

As well as choosing a new president, the 7.3 million eligible voters will elect a new Congress, where both chambers are currently controlled by MAS.

Although likely to remain the largest party, MAS is expected to lose its overall majority in the chambers.

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