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Bolivia goes to polls as left-wing icon Evo Morales seeks unprecedented fourth term

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Bolivia votes in the first round of its presidential elections on Sunday with Evo Morales seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the career of the countrys first indigenous president – a hero to many previously marginalised Bolivians but increasingly under fire.

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A former llama shepherd in the Andes who built his career as the head of a coca growers union, Morales swept to power in the 2005 presidential vote, amid the decades “pink tide” in South America, which saw the election of left-wing governments across the continent.

After his inauguration the following year, Morales transformed the country with a radical reform programme. In doing so, he broke with Bolivias colonial past and restored pride to many indigenous people. Even the IMF – an unlikely fan for a leader who has so explicitly renounced the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” – has praised Bolivias economic performance under Morales.

But as he stands for a fourth term in the first round of voting on October 20, Morales has come in for increasing criticism from various different sectors of the population – in a continent where a right-wing resurgence seems to have replaced the pink tide amid last years elections of reactionary populist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and conservative Ivan Duque in Colombia.

>> REPORTERS: Bolivia, the Evo Morales years

Morales government instated a new constitution in 2009, which officially renamed the country “The Plurinational State of Bolivia” – a name change designed to recognise the diversity of indigenous communities and languages there. According to the 2012 census, based on self-definition, 60 percent of Bolivians call themselves mestizos, 37 percent say they belong to an indigenous group (mainly Aymara and Quechua), 3 percent say they are white and 1 percent Afro-Bolivian.

The Wiphala – the colourful flag of the indigenous people of the Andes – has become an official emblem of the country, often displayed alongside the traditional Bolivian tricolour. Likewise, the text enshrining equal treatment of all citizens before the law and the prohibition of all forms of discrimination is widely displayed in shops and public facilities.

In the western city of El Alto – the highest major conurbation in the world, at an altitude of 4000 metres – Morales policies have contributed to the emergence of a new Aymara bourgeoisie. From owners of transport companies to mining entrepreneurs and small traders, many Aymara (the group to which Morales belongs) are keen to display both their economic success and their pride in their own culture.

An economic miracle

Bolivia boasts the second largest national gas reserves in South America. Soon after his election in 2006, Morales nationalised numerous oil and gas companies. Following a series of negotiations with the multinationals present in the country, his government gave itself the right to 80 percent of the total revenue from oil and gas extraction, compared to just 20 percent previously.

This money gave Morales government the means to fund generous social programmes – boosting funding for healthcare, education and pensions – as well as a major plan to develop public infrastructure, especially energy and transport.

This Keynesian approach has borne fruit. Over the last 10 years, Bolivia has enjoyed an annual growth rate of between 4 and 6 percent, multiplying the countrys GDP by three and allowing the poverty rate to be halved – although many analysts have argued that this cycle is coming to an end and that economic headwinds lie ahead.

Morales has won every vote hands down since 2005, with the notable exception of a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians narrowly voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the president to stand for a fourth term. Nevertheless, this was overruled by a controversial Supreme Court decision the subsequent year, which allowed Morales to compete in Sundays poll.

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