Bolivia's socialists claim victory as unofficial count shows big win


A woman reacts when casting her vote at a polling station during the presidential election, in Cohoni, Bolivia October 18, 2020. REUTERS/Wara Vargas Lara

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia's socialist candidate Luis Arce looks set to win the country's presidential election without the need for a run-off, an unofficial count indicated on Monday, putting the leftwing party of Evo Morales on the brink of a return to power.

The quick-count from pollster Ciesmori, released by Bolivian TV channel Unitel around midnight on Sunday, showed Arce had 52.4% of valid votes, more than 20 percentage points above the second place centrist rival Carlos Mesa, who had 31.5%.

The official count had reached just 5% of votes cast, and exit polls had been delayed hours after polls closed, leaving Bolivians in the dark about the election result. A candidate needs 40% of the votes and a 10-point lead to win outright.

"All the data known so far indicate that there has been a victory for the Movement towards Socialism," Morales, who handpicked Arce and has been closely advising the campaign, said in a press conference in Buenos Aires.

Arce, a former economy minister under Morales, sounded confident of victory without explicitly claiming the win at his own press conference shortly after midnight in the Bolivian capital La Paz.

"We are going to work, and we will resume the process of change without hate," Arce told reporters. "We will learn and we will overcome the mistakes we've made (before) as the Movement Toward Socialism party".

Conducted amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Sunday's poll was regarded as a test of democracy in the Andean nation after last year's election was annulled after allegations of vote rigging, which sparked bloody protests and led to Morales quitting after almost 14 years in power.

Jeanine Anez, the conservative interim President who took over in a power vacuum last year, said that it appeared Arce was the election winner and offered her congratulations.

The election outcome, if confirmed, is chastening for the country's conservatives and will likely bolster the image of Morales, the socialist indigenous leader whose shadow still looms large over the country despite him living in exile in Argentina since last year's disputed election.

MORALES RETURNS?

Morales was an iconic and long-lasting figure in a wave of leftist presidents in the region over the last two decades, and the Bolivian election is a litmus test of the left's abiding clout in Latin America.

"The vote is set to be the most important since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1982," Carlos Valverde, a political analyst, said earlier in the day.

On Sunday, residents of La Paz, a city starkly divided by class and race, had voted peacefully but faced long lines meant to avoid overcrowding inside voting locations. Many had said they worried the election result could lead to more violence.

"I hope everything turns out peacefully and that the next government can also provide the solutions that all Bolivians are hoping for," said David Villarroel, voting in La Paz.

(Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in La Paz; Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos; Editing by Frances Kerry, Daniel Wallis & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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