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As Bolivians Vote, Populism Is on the Rise


EL ALTO, Bolivia, June 28 Bolivians will elect a new president on Sunday from a colorful field of candidates, some of whom want to scale back market reforms as a way of addressing the country's stagnant economy and social turbulence.

The growing income inequality, endemic corruption and widespread protests in this country of 8.3 million people have led to the emergence of such hopefuls as Evo Morales. An indigenous leader, Mr. Morales has surged in the polls on pledges to fight coca eradication efforts and to nationalize industries.


Political analysts see such proposals as potentially damaging to Bolivia, which in the 1980's was among the first South American countries to embrace privatization of state-owned industries and to carry out other market reforms.

But calls for a stronger government presence have been playing well in places like El Alto, which was transformed from a highland backwater near the capital, La Paz, into a sprawling city of its own as migrants settled after finding steady work in government mines, railroads and utilities. Now, like most Bolivians, those workers and their children toil in the so-called informal sector, hawking cheap toys or produce on the street or working in tiny, struggling businesses.

"Economically what we have is a total, complete crisis," said Rosendo Mamani, 53, who once mined tin and now sells sodas at a kiosk. "There is no job source. There is too much poverty. People eat just once a day."

Such sentiments have colored a campaign that, in many ways, is an important test for a country that has only 20 years of experience with democracy. Responding to the political winds, several of the 11 candidates have taken on a populist tilt.

The leader in the polls is an unlikely man of the people Manfred Reyes Villa, a multimillionaire and former army captain who was mayor of Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city. He has been leading since April, when he overtook Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a former president and pro-market reformer.

Although he would probably not scale back reforms significantly, Mr. Reyes has raised doubts about the privatization of the oil industry and questioned whether all market reforms have been beneficial. His plan for dealing with poverty and a downcast economy is simple: spend $5 billion in five years to create a development bank to finance small businesses while improving education, health and other services.

"The people need to feel there is a new government, and that there is cash circulating," said Mr. Reyes, leader of the New Republican Force.

The candidate who has been third in the polls is also a former president, Jaime Paz Zamora, who has emphasized his "antineoliberal" credentials. But it is the fourth-place candidate, Mr. Morales, who has attracted the most attention lately, in part because he has experienced vehement American opposition.

On Wednesday, the United States ambassador, Manuel Rocha, said American aid could be jeopardized if voters supported a leader who defends the production of coca, which is used to make cocaine. Mr. Morales, who was expelled from Congress last year for inciting violence in Bolivia's coca-growing region, has led protests by coca farmers angered by the United States' largely successful efforts to eradicate the plant, costing Bolivia $600 million a year.

Though Mr. Rocha did not use Mr. Morales's name, his comments angered the National Election Board and Bolivian politicians of all stripes, including President Jorge Quiroga. Mr. Morales delighted in the attention, calling Mr. Rocha his "best campaign chief." Political analysts said Mr. Rocha's comments might help Mr. Morales's chances.

No candidate is expected to win the 50 percent majority needed to claim the presidency outright on Sunday, which would leave it up to Congress to pick a president on Aug. 6 from the top two candidates. Twenty-seven senators and 130 representatives will also be elected.

Mr. Morales's expected strong showing could help usher in to Congress as many as 15 candidates from his party, Movement Toward Socialism. He and his party could thus play an important role in building the coalition the winner will need to take the presidency.

"Morales is the king-maker," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born expert on the country at Florida International University in Miami.

Still, analysts note that it will be difficult for any future president to undo the economic reforms that Bolivia embraced in the 1980's. The country is trying to extricate itself from recession and a looming deficit. Foreign investment is needed for expensive ventures, like the ambitious plan to produce natural gas for the California market.

"If they jump off, whole hog, from the reform path, they are going to wind up more isolated," said Russell Crandall, a Latin American specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina.

But for millions of people in this country, one of the poorest in South America, the market reform promises of prosperity and higher living standards never materialized. Most Bolivians live in poverty and the life expectancy, at 62 years, is among the lowest on the continent.

"People say there have been so many changes, but the social changes are not for the better," said Gonzalo Chávez, an economist and political analysts at Catholic University in La Paz.

Working in bakeries here, Brigida Quipse, 22, said that she has never earned more than $20 a month. "In my family, we all have to work," said Ms. Quipse, who still lives at home and who directs her anger at privatization programs. "Everyone earns just a little bit, so we need to put all our earnings together."

Frustration over the lack of jobs, as well as coca-eradication efforts that have left farmers without a suitable crop substitute, has led to protests that have ended in violence. "It's quite remarkable that Bolivia has not collapsed, given how vulnerable it is," Mr. Gamarra said.

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