Evo Morales is an unorthodox candidate. He's a former IIama herder and coca farmer, and an indigenous Indian with an eighth-grade education. His platform rests on ending Bolivia's 20 years of free-market economic policies, and decriminalizing the growing of coca, the leaf from which cocaine is made. And polls indicate he is poised to become the next President of Bolivia.
"This election [on Sunday] will change history," Mr. Morales tells the crowds gathered for his last campaign rally in the capital. With a traditional red poncho draped over his signature blue sweatshirt, Morales revs up his supporters: "If we don't win, neo-liberalism and colonialism will deepen," he cries. A wreath of potatoes, roses, and coca leaves hangs around his neck. "The time of dignity for the people has come."
Morales is populist, socialist, and anti-American. In that sense, he's cast in the same mold as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez - who Morales admires. And like Chávez, his country sits on a vast supply of hydrocarbons - the continent's second biggest reserves of natural gas.
Washington worries that if Morales wins, it will be yet another Latin American nation swinging to the left - away from free trade - and, in this case, the drug war. After two decades of moving away from dictatorships, some see a regional trend back toward the Marxist ideas popular in the '60s and '70s. "Che Guevara sought to ignite a war based on igniting a peasant revolution," Roger Pardo-Mauer IV, a senior adviser to the Bush administration, said in July. "This project is back."
But here in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, many people hope that Morales will bring them the jobs, stability, and dignity they crave.
"How is it," asks Juan Carlos Pairo, a bus driver and Morales supporter, "that we have so many natural riches, and we are so poor?" It's a common gripe heard in a county with some 54 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - and a per capita income, according to the World Bank, of $960. "Morales understands inequality and poverty," says Pairo. "And only he has the guts to make changes."
All polls show Morales, head of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, slightly ahead of his closest challenger, conservative former President Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, a Texas A&M alumnus and former IBM executive who leads the Democratic and Social Power (PODEMOS) citizen's association. Local paper La Prensa, in a poll published Wednesday, gave Morales 34.2 percent of the vote, Quiroga 29.2 percent, and cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina 8.9 percent. Five other minor candidates are running.
But, in the likely event that no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes Sunday, Congress will choose between the top two vote-getters when it reconvenes in mid-January. Analysts say this could bode ill for stability in a country which has had 83 presidents and about 200 coups and countercoups since independence in 1825. Massive street protests forced the last two presidents to resign.
"Whatever the outcome, it is likely to be greeted by ... protests, even violence," says Markus Schultze-Kraft, Andes Project Director at the International Crisis Group, a Washington think tank. The decision of congress, he says, or even the expectation of it, will bring people to the streets, "especially if Morales wins the popular vote but is snubbed by the likely more conservative legislature."
Meanwhile, while it might be alarmed by Morales' stance on coca, his anti-American rhetoric, his stated antipathy to a free trade agreement, and his promise to enforce a new hydrocarbons law which will force all foreign companies working in the natural gas sector to renegotiate contracts - the US has tried to keep its opinions about the front-runner private this time around.
During the last presidential election in 2002, then US Ambassador Manuel Rocha criticized Morales, only to see his support triple. "My campaign manager," Morales often refers, jokingly, to the diplomat.
One of seven children born to a poor family in a tin-mining town in the district of Oruro, high in the Bolivian altiplano, Morales was one of only three who made it past infancy. He grew up herding the family IIamas and never finished high school. When the mines closed in the late 1970s, his parents migrated to the Bolivian lowlands of Chapare to become coca farmers.
Morales's start in politics came in 1993 when he was elected president of a local coca farmers federation, and later he helped found MAS and was elected to congress in 1997. In 2002 he narrowly lost the presidential race to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was soon forced to resign amidst massive street protests largely by MAS supporters.
Morales would be the first full-blooded indigenous president here, even though over half of the population consider themselves indigenous.
As for the lucrative gas sector, Morales has promised to revise longstanding contracts with foreign investors - a plan that will no doubt be met with resistance by companies such as Repsol, British Gas, and Total. The three investors have already threatened to take the country to court over a hydrocarbons law passed in May that imposed a new 32 percent tax.
Meanwhile, Morales's plans for the coca sector run completely counter to the US campaign to stamp out coca production ,and as such is likely to cause great tension with his biggest donor. Two-thirds of the $150 million the US gives in aid to Bolivia every year goes towards eradicating the raw material to make cocaine and encouraging alternative agriculture and development. One of Morales's catchy, though perhaps questionable, campaign slogans is "Causachun coca, wanuchun Yanquis" ("Long live coca, death to the Yankees").
"If Morales fully carries out his proposed agenda, the consequences would be likely to be quite problematic," says Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "His supporters may be happy, but Bolivia's economy would not be viable, and the country's integrity could well be jeopardized." Morales, says Shifter, would need to find a formula for satisfying his base, yet keeping the country together. "That," he says, "will be no mean feat."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.