LA PAZ, Bolivia — The choice before voters in Bolivia Sunday is laid out in graffiti scrawled around the capital.
The incumbent, Evo Morales, whose 15 years in power make him Latin America’s longest-serving president, is lionized in messages that proclaim, “Evo is the future.”
But across La Paz, critics have tagged walls with a view that helps explain why his bid for a fourth consecutive term is his toughest reelection fight yet: “Evo is a dictator.”
Morales, 59, a former coca farmer and union leader, stunned his compatriots in 2005 when he was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous president. He earned acclaim for bringing indigenous people into the political mainstream.
And despite coming into office with no executive experience or knowledge of economics, Morales has been credited with lifting millions out of poverty and narrowing the wealth divide as Bolivia has reaped the benefits of a commodities boom.
Raúl Madrid, a professor of Latin American politics at the University of Texas Austin, said Morales oversaw a remarkable process of social inclusion and averted the economic mistakes that doomed other socialist leaders.
“Certainly the political incorporation of the indigenous population is a positive achievement,” Madrid said. But, he added, “On balance, I would have to say that he has weakened democracy in Bolivia.”
Many Bolivians have soured on Morales, who has been elected three times in landslides. Recently, opponents have taken to the streets across the country to protest what they see as his increasingly authoritarian style. They also denounce the president’s latest reelection bid as unconstitutional.
“Morales’s bid is an undemocratic act that trashes the Constitution,” Carlos Mesa, a former Bolivian president who is Morales’s main rival in the race, said recently.
While Morales is the front-runner, public opinion polls suggest that he may be forced into a runoff, which would give Bolivia’s opposition a chance to band together and possibly defeat him in December.
To win outright Sunday, Morales needs to win at least 40 percent of the vote and lead his closest opponent by at least 10 percentage points. Several opinion polls have suggested that Morales will fall short of that.