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Results Are Pending In Bolivia's Presidential Election

NOEL KING, HOST:

Bolivia held its most important presidential election in decades yesterday. Last year, you might remember the socialist leader Evo Morales was ousted and he fled the country. Now his legacy and his political heir are both on the ballot. NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves is in Brazil following the count. Good morning, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Bolivia was in absolute turmoil last year. Remind us what happened there.

REEVES: Well, you remember that Morales was pushed out after nearly 14 years in power. He actually resigned after an election that wound up being annulled because of allegations of fraud. He went into exile in Argentina, and an unelected right-wing interim government took over. And since then, Bolivia has been politically volatile and even more polarized. Morales and his supporters insist that he was a victim of a coup backed by the military who pushed him into leaving, and they still deny those allegations of election fraud. But, anyway, this election yesterday gave - gives Bolivians a chance to hit the reset button by restoring democracy after nearly a year.

KING: And so who's on the ballot and who's the favorite?

REEVES: Well, before the election, polls showed that the man handpicked by Morales to be presidential candidate for the Socialist Party was ahead, but probably didn't have enough to avoid a second round. He's a guy called Luis Arce. He's 57. He used to be economy minister during the Morales years and was deeply involved in a nationalization program that helped lift millions of Bolivians out of poverty.

But his supporters are now claiming he's actually won outright. Morales himself has already declared him the winner. And Arce's been talking about forming a government. But this seems to be based on the findings of a couple of exit pollsters. Counting's still in the early stages. But if true, that would be a major development in Latin America, a sharp turn to the left that won't be welcomed in Washington.

KING: A question that is relevant to U.S. listeners' interests - you've got a really polarized country, right? You've also got a pandemic. Were there any problems with voting there?

REEVES: Yeah. Bolivia has been hard hit by COVID-19. In fact, it has one of the world's highest per capita infection rates. And, in fact, yesterday's election was postponed twice because of the pandemic. It was meant to be in May and then in September. Those postponements led to mass protests a couple of months ago, including a nationwide blockade, and that stoked up tensions along.

And yesterday, people were very worried about what might happen. They stockpiled food and gas in case things turned violent. However, the vote seems to have been peaceful and orderly, although there were very long lines. Bolivians wore masks and socially distanced, and the authorities asked them to bring their own pens to the voting booths.

KING: All of that sounds like a really good sign. When will there be a result?

REEVES: Well, counting started, you know, after the polls closed yesterday, but it's been going very slowly. So far, only a small percentage of the votes are counted. The electoral authorities are saying they want to be careful; they want to wait until they have a result that's reliable before announcing anything.

Yesterday, they suddenly scrapped plans to put out a rolling tally of early results 'cause they're trying to avoid the turmoil of last year's election - when the rolling count showed that the election was going to a second round, then everything stopped for 24 hours, and when it resumed, Morales was heading for an outright victory. But we may have to wait a while before we get an official announcement.

KING: OK. NPR's Philip Reeves covering this story from Brazil. Thanks, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "ONTARIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.