IN one of the most ironic twists in recent Latin American history, Jaime Paz Zamora of the center-left Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) Party has been elected as Bolivia's President. But only thanks to the support of ex-dictator Gen. Hugo Banzer, whom the MIR triedto overthrow in the early 1970s. Mr. Paz Zamora finished third in the May 7 general elections. No one won a majority, which threw the election to the new congress, where Paz Zamora secured a comfortable 47-vote majority with the aid of General Banzer's second-place National Democratic Action (ADN) Party.
The MIR and the ADN will form an unlikely - and potentially unstable - alliance to govern this country of 7 million for the next four years. Observers say that the agreement reached by the two parties seems to be based more on a search for power than on any ideological overlap. The ADN and the MIR were also united by their desire to keep out Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of the ruling National Revolutionary Movement. Mr. Sanchez de Lozada won the May elections by a close margin.
In its early history, the MIR was an avowedly Marxist party, many of whose militants suffered persecution under Banzer's dictatorship from 1971 to 1978. Even Paz Zamora's official r'esum'e reads that he ``headed the clandestine resistance to the de facto regime of Gen. Banzer.''
Paz Zamora himself was imprisoned by the general who is now supporting him, and spent three years in exile during the general's regime. But he is best known for his period as vice-president under the chaotic center-left government of Dr. H'ernan Siles from 1982 to 1985 - a period of acute food shortages, frequent strikes, and hyperinflation.
Recently the MIR and Paz Zamora have jettisoned their early radicalism in favor of political pragmatism, which his opponents call opportunism. He is seen as a charismatic but ambitious politician who has always had his eye set on the presidency.
In his election campaign, ``Jaime,'' as he is usually known, promised to reverse the freemarket economic model vigorously pursued by out-going president V'ictor Paz Estenssoro. But as soon as his presidency was virtually guaranteed, he moved quickly to reassure businessmen and bankers that he ``would not introduce traumatic changes to the economy, because we have learned our lesson from the past.''
His comments halted a 30-percent slump in the Bolivian currency against the dollar on Wednesday, the day his presidency was assured. But according to one report, savers have withdrawn $80 million from the banking system since the beginning of last week, and are waiting to see whether Paz Zamora keeps his word.
He has also promised to meet repayment on Bolivia's $4 billion debt, welcome foreign investment, and continue the fight against Bolivia's multi-million dollar cocaine industry - but without the help of foreign, i.e., US, troops.
His main challenge will be to maintain the confidence of the international financial community, on whose good will and largesse the fragile stability of the Bolivian economy depends. Dr. Paz Estenssoro's drastic neo-liberal measures successfully tamed inflation, which dropped to 21 percent last year, but the social cost has been a rapid rise in unemployment to over 20 percent in what is South America's poorest country.
Many of the victims of the stabilization policy - the poor, the young, and the unemployed - voted for Paz Zamora, who will be hard-pushed to find the necessary private and foreign capital to create the 60,000 jobs he has promised for the first part of his term.
A top US official in Bolivia, who described the MIR-ADN alliance as ``unusual,'' was optimistic about the new government, but said much would depend on ``the distribution of the 17 ministries between the two parties, and their ability to work together.''
But pessimists fear that the incoherence of the alliance may return Bolivia to its sad history of political instability - the country has suffered more than 190 coups in its 164 years of independence.
Civilian rule has been consolidated in recent years, as Paz Zamora will be the third successive civilian president this decade. But the military has ruled Bolivia for much of its history and could be tempted to return from the wings if there is a lack of coordination between the two parties, which, at least in the past, were at opposite ends of the political spectrum.