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Bolivia's Morales facing fight as he seeks fourth term

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La Paz (AFP)

Bolivians went to the polls Sunday with Evo Morales vying for a controversial fourth term as the country's first indigenous president amid allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.

Former coca farmer and leftist union leader Morales has been in power since 2006, but his popularity is on the wane.

"We need change. I think any party, no matter how good it is, if it stays in place for too long, it is corrupt, that's what we're going through," said 22-year-old student Tania Villaroel Lopez as she joined a line of voters outside a polling station near the presidential palace in central La Paz.

Roberto Fernandez, 32, came with his wife Denise and their two-year-old daughter to vote at the same place. They said they feared the result of the elections would be manipulated.

"We hope the end result will be respected," Fernandez said.

Latin America's longest-serving president, Morales held a 32-27 percent lead in opinion polls over his main challenger, a 66-year-old journalist and former president Carlos Mesa.

Despite Morales' previous three election victories, opinion polls say this race is likely to go to an unprecedented second-round runoff on December 15.

None of the other seven candidates is expected to come close to challenging the top two, but neither Morales nor Mesa is likely to win the first-round vote outright.

Bolivia's seven million eligible voters were also casting ballots to choose members of the 166-seat congress -- 36 senators and 130 deputies.

After casting his ballot in his coca-growing district of Chapare, Morales, a member of the Aymara indigenous community, said he was optimistic about his chances and confident in Bolivia's democracy.

- Opposition distrust -

Mesa said he feared a rigged election after he voted in La Paz.

"I don't trust in the transparency of the process, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has demonstrated that it's an operative arm of the government. We have a very high level of distrust," he told reporters.

Mesa lambasted what he said was Morales' powerful grip on key organs of state in a meeting with observers from the Organization of American States last week.

Mesa, who was president from 2001-2005, is backed by a number of small parties.

Morales said the maturity of Bolivia's electorate would make Sunday's polls a triumph of democracy and "an example for delegations and observers who visit us."

-- Long-time leader --

Morales, who will turn 60 next week, has been at the helm in the poor but resource-rich Latin American country for 13 years.

As leader of his Movement for Socialism Party (MAS), Morales points to a decade of economic stability and considerable industrialization as his achievements, while insisting he's brought "dignity" to Bolivia's indigenous population, the largest in Latin America.

But he stands accused of corruption, and many voters are enraged at his refusal to step aside, even though the South American country's constitution bars him from running again.

"Power has replaced policies aimed at the whole population by others that only serve the interests of certain sectors," political commentator Maria Teresa Zegada told AFP.

"Opposition leaders have been persecuted, all of which has caused citizens unease and given the impression that democracy was in danger," said Zegada.

Bolivia's 2009 constitution, promulgated by Morales himself, limits a president to two consecutive terms of office.

In a 2016 referendum, voters defeated Morales' bid to secure public support to remove term limits, but his government rejected the result.

The constitutional court, stacked with Morales loyalists, ruled it was his right to seek re-election.

He has come under severe criticism from indigenous communities and conservationists this year as wildfires in August and September ravaged Bolivia's forests and grasslands, with activists saying his policies encouraged the use of blazes to clear farmland.

Environmental experts said more than two million animals, including jaguars, pumas and llamas, died. A non-governmental organization said more than four million hectares (nearly 10 million acres) was destroyed.

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