EXPLAINER-Lithium, Morales and cocaine: What's at stake as Bolivia votes?
LA PAZ, Oct 18 (Reuters) - As Bolivia readies to vote in a defining election, a number of key issues are on the table, including the country's huge lithium deposits, the role of unseated ex-leader Evo Morales, and policy on farming coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine.
Sunday's presidential ballot is a delayed re-run of a fraught and later voided vote in 2019 that sparked off deadly protests and led to the resignation of leftist Morales after a near 14-year rule.
WHO ARE THE FRONT-RUNNERS?
The two front-runners this time are Luis Arce, the candidate for Morales' socialist MAS party, who would tilt the country back towards the left after a period of conservative interim government. Arce's main challenger is centrist ex-President Carlos Mesa, who led the country from 2003 to 2005, and came second in last year's vote.
Arce, a long-time economy minister under Morales, leads Mesa in opinion polls, though not by enough to win outright on Sunday. A candidate needs at least 40% of valid votes in the first round and a ten point lead to avoid a second round run-off.
A second round, if needed, would take place on Nov. 29, with polls indicating a potential narrow win for Mesa.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO EVO?
Mesa and Arce would take very different paths over Morales, a divisive figure in Bolivia who is currently living in exile in Argentina. He is being investigated by state prosecutors in Bolivia over accusations of corruption, sexual abuse, and fraud, all of which he denies.
Mesa has said that in his government "the crimes of Evo Morales would not go unpunished," while Arce has left the door open for him returning to politics, though said he would have to first resolve pending issues with judicial authorities.
MAS under Morales, a former coca growers union head, had strong support from farmers of the leaf, which is used medicinally in Bolivia but is also the raw material to make cocaine. He put a stop to U.S. drug enforcement operations in the country.
Both candidates say there must be a fight against drugs. Arce says traditional growing areas must be protected by law, while Mesa has said there needs to be a stronger line on controlling legal production.
Bolivia's relationship with the United States soured under Morales, though it has warmed under the interim government of President Jeanine Anez, who is not running in Sunday's election. There has been no U.S. ambassador in Bolivia since 2008.
Arce has pledged to "work with everyone," though the close involvement of Morales in his campaign would likely hinder U.S. ties. Mesa, meanwhile, says there is no reason not to "resume full ambassadorial-level relations" with the United States.
Any new government would need to tackle the question of lithium, the ultralight metal key to making batteries for electric vehicles. Bolivia has one of the world's largest reserves of the 'white gold', but it has been largely untapped.
"We intend to turn Bolivia into a competitive producer that fully develops the salt flats and ensures its participation in the global lithium value chain," Mesa has said.
Arce said he wants to create 130,000 new direct and indirect jobs by 2025 via the industrialization of lithium.
Mesa has pledged to spend over $6 billion in the first year of his administration to drive an economic recovery. Arce wants to reactive domestic industry and has proposed a two-year payment halt on around $1.6 billion in foreign debt.
(Reporting by Daniel Ramos in La Paz; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)
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