The Paragon of Polls Falls From Grace

Even the winning party has challenged vote, threatening nation's stability. BOLIVIAN ELECTIONS

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

BOLIVIA's presidential election, widely praised for being the paragon of recent Latin American polls, is rapidly turning sour. The long delayed announcement of the results has fueled controversy over the official count and threatens to lead the country into another period of political instability. Three weeks after the closely contested May 7 election, Bolivians are still waiting for firm results, and will have to wait at least two more months for a new president.

The ruling National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) has challenged the official results released at the weekend. The center-right MNR was given only a slim lead of 5,800 votes over the second-place right-wing National Democratic Action Party (ADN) of ex-dictator Gen. Hugo Banzer.

Despite his victory, MNR candidate and millionaire businessman Gonzalo S'anchez de Lozada and his party have said they will appeal to the country's Supreme Court to nullify the results, claiming that the National Electoral Court carried out ``illegal acts'' during the count.

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Unofficial estimates say that 780 ballot boxes - representing around 200,000 votes - have been annulled.

With only 54,000 votes separating the first-placed MNR from a third-place Revolutionary Movement of the Left Party (MIR), mutual accusations of fraud and manipulation have surfaced almost daily. And ugly disputes between party delegates in the regional electoral courts have caused delays in the count.

In the worse incident, in Trinidad, the count had to be stopped after the delegates failed to agree on which ballot boxes to annul. Five court officials dispatched from the capital, La Paz, to sort out the dispute, were attacked by angry militants of the MNR demanding ``the head of at least one of them.'' Only the intervention of a group of local journalists saved the court officials from serious injury.

The current system of vote counting is an open invitation to manipulation. All 1.6 million votes cast are counted manually under the scrutiny of party delegates, who control all the electoral courts. Delegates can easily annul a ballot box if they think their party is not doing particularly well: a smudge here, or missing signature there and the ballot box is declared void.

Mr. Lozada alleges that the ADN and center-left MIR - who won 22.7 percent and 19.6 percent of the vote respectively, compared to his party's 23.1 percent - have conspired to rob the MNR of crucial votes and therefore deputies in the new 157-seat Congress. The Congress will choose Bolivia's next president in early August.

``A new round of elections is the only way to rescue the dignity of the Bolivian people,'' MNR officials claim.

But Dr. Mauro Cuellar, president of the Electoral Court, has denied the accusation. ``The Supreme Court does not have the power to annul the election,'' he said. ``It would constitute a coup d''etat.''

Constitutional experts say the MNR's appeal could lead to a dangerous power conflict between the two courts, or lead to the Supreme Court taking over the government of the country while new elections are called. In either case, analysts fear a new bout of political instability from which Bolivia has only recently escaped. Since 1982 the country has enjoyed civilian rule, but there have been more than 180 coups in its 164 years of independence from Spain.

Analysts fear that worse is yet to come with the inter-party bargaining in Congress. If the official results hold, the MNR will have 49 seats, the ADN 46, and the MIR 41, with the remaining 21 shared between the United Left and a new populace party, CONDEPA. Thus, in order to win a majority of 79, a candidate has to count on the votes of at least one other party.

Before the elections, General Banzer appealed to all the parties to vote in Congress for the ``winner of a relative majority, even if it was by just one vote.'' But that was when he was leading the opinion polls by as much as 10 percent. Now that his party has come second, he has changed his tune and gone back on his promise. Top ADN officials say they will be able to engineer a majority vote in the general's favor.

An unlikely alliance between the right-wing ADN and the center-left MIR is not ruled out. MIR's activists were heavily persecuted during Banzer's dictatorship in the 70s, when MIR's candidate, Jaime Paz Zamora, was forced into exile. At a recent candidate's forum, Mr. Zamora said that ``in a democracy, the painful situation arises that assassins and victims have to sit down at the same table.'' Observers are asking whether this spirit of cooperation could extend to a coalition government. 30-{et

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