Early returns show Bolivia shifting to the right

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Bolivia has taken a decided turn to the right in presidential balloting, no matter who eventually emerges as the nation's next president. The turn was not unexpected. Landlocked Bolivia has regularly shifted from left to right and back again.

But ideology is often less important than personality in Bolivian elections, and the two frontrunners -- Hugo Banzer Su'arez and Victor Paz Estenssoro -- are charismatic former presidents.

Sunday's vote, moreover, is seen as less an outright repudiation of the left and more the result of widespread dissatisfaction with the chaotic economic decline in which Bolivia has been caught during the past three years.

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With inflation soaring at close to 1,000 percent a month, most Bolivians simply want a change from what they now have.

Neither frontrunner has won an absolute majority in the voting which saw 18 candidates vying for the presidency. The choice now rests with the Bolivian Congress which must decide between General Banzer and Dr. Paz. Both Banzer and Paz espouse a conservative line in contrast to incumbent, left-leaning President Hern'an Siles Zuazo.

In unofficial returns, with only a 30 percent of the 2.93 million votes counted, Banzer's right-wing Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN) party had 36.2 percent of the vote. Paz's Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) received 25.5 percent. Banzer was running strong in La Paz, the capital, and in other urban areas. Paz was the clear favorite in the countryside.

The problems facing the eventual winner are enormous. Whether either Banzer or Paz can arrest Bolivia's economic decline -- hyper inflation, strikes, and bankruptcies -- remains to be seen.

But whether either of them can hold on to power is another question. Presidential terms in Bolivia are frequently cut short by revolts, and military coups are common. In 150 years of independence Bolivia has had more than 200 governments.

Incumbent President Siles has had his own troubles. He was forced to cut a year off his term because of popular discontent with his government.

He hoped that leftist candidates would do well, but the leading leftist won less than 10 percent of the vote in early counting.

Sunday's balloting suggests that a majority of voters simply felt that the nation would be better off in the hands of either General Banzer or Dr. Paz.

Both have been leaders and victims of coups themselves. Banzer was president from 1971 to 1978 and generally impresses supporters as a tough, fearless strongman. Considered a conservative, he has the reputation of being a ruthless dictator and his years in office were extremely controversial.

Paz, who at 77 is now an elder statesman, is regarded more as a thinker, a compromiser, eager to negotiate and work out solutions peacefully. He has moved to the right over the years, although he began on the left politically and served as president from 1952 to 1956 and again from 1960 to 1964.

Ironically, Dr. Paz and outgoing President Siles were once allies. They founded the moderate leftist MNR in the 1950s.

As a reformist political party, it called for, and eventually won, nationalization of the nation's tin mines -- the country's chief economic resource.

Over the years, however, as each became president in his own right, the two former allies split. Dr. Paz became more conservative, while Dr. Siles, on the other hand, moved to the left.

Such political labels, however, are not always valid in Bolivia.

Paz, in his campaign, called for new social reforms which hark back to the days of the 1950s and 1960s when Bolivia was one of the leaders of reform in the hemisphere.

Many conservative businessmen clearly do not like nor do they trust Dr. Paz and consequently have worked to support General Banzer's election.

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