LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Bolivian President Evo Morales faces the tightest election of his political career Sunday as he tries to extend his nearly 14 years in power.
The 59-year-old leftist, who is seeking a fourth term, still appears to lead in polls. But some surveys say he's likely to fall short of a first-round victory and could be vulnerable to a united opposition in a December runoff.
Bolivia's first indigenous president is credited with pragmatic economic stewardship that spread the Andean country's natural gas and mineral wealth among the masses. But he has lost support among voters frustrated by corruption scandals affecting his administration and his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms. Critics also accuse him of a delayed response to vast forest fires this year that they blame on his push to develop areas with slash-and-burn agriculture.
An Oct. 4-6 poll by the San Andres Higher University and other institutions showed Morales apparently leading his nearest rival, former President Carlos Mesa, 32% to 27% heading into the first round of voting, with the rest split among other candidates.
That would set up a runoff, and the poll showed Morales and Mesa essentially tied at just under 36% each in a two-way race — with the rest of those surveyed saying they were undecided, would cast a null ballot or declining to state a preference. The poll surveyed 14,420 people and the margin of error was 2.8 percentage points.
"It's definitely the closest election and we're facing the possibility that Morales can be defeated after 14 years of government," political analyst Jorge Dulón, said.
Morales grew up as a llama shepherd in the Bolivian highlands and became famous as the fiery leader of a coca growers' union fighting U.S.-backed attempts to stifle the crop, a mild stimulant deeply rooted in Bolivian culture but which is also the raw material for cocaine.
As president, he presided over more than a decade of business-boosting economic growth in South America's poorest country while allying himself with a leftist bloc of Latin American leaders including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Brazil's Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and Ecuador's Rafael Correa. He retains wide support and continues to capitalize on his everyman image as a champion of the poor.
"As long as we're united, we'll keep defeating those who don't love the Bolivian people," Morales said in the campaign trail this week referring to the opposition.
But conservatives have always distrusted the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party, and have been outraged by corruption scandals, such as an alleged embezzlement of $6.8 million from a fund for indigenous people, as well as allegations of partisan manipulation of the justice system.
Many Bolivians also were angered by his decision to seek another re-election despite a popular referendum that upheld term limits. South America's longest-serving current leader was able to run only because of a Supreme Court ruling that decided that the limits violated his political rights.
"What really has deteriorated his power is failing to respect the 2016 referendum that said no to his re-election," Dulón said.
Many young Bolivians also have no recollection of a president other than Morales, and some say they are ready for change despite years of economic and political stability.
Mesa, who had been vice president, took power when his predecessor resigned in 2003 amid massive protests, and stepped aside himself in 2005 amid renewed demonstrations led by Morales. The 66-year-old journalist and historian has described the election as a choice "between dictatorship and democracy."
Morales and Mesa closed their campaigns on Wednesday in La Paz and in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, a bastion of the opposition. Neither is expected to gain a majority in Congress, which could lead to an impasse for the upcoming administration.
While Morales has avoided the personal corruption scandals that have tarred or toppled leaders in neighboring Argentina, Brazil and Peru, Human Rights Watch has accused his government of undermining judicial independence by arbitrarily dismissing nearly 100 judges since 2017. The group said the judges were not given any reason for the dismissals by a Magistrates Council dominated by allies of Morales.
"I'm worried about the day after the elections," Stefan Duppel, the German ambassador to La Paz, said recently. "There's an atmosphere of distrust and it's key to guarantee that the elections are as clean as possible."