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The Paragon of Polls Falls From Grace

Even the winning party has challenged vote, threatening nation's stability. BOLIVIAN ELECTIONS

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BOLIVIA's presidential election, widely praised for being the paragon of recent Latin American polls, is rapidly turning sour. The long delayed announcement of the results has fueled controversy over the official count and threatens to lead the country into another period of political instability. Three weeks after the closely contested May 7 election, Bolivians are still waiting for firm results, and will have to wait at least two more months for a new president.

The ruling National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) has challenged the official results released at the weekend. The center-right MNR was given only a slim lead of 5,800 votes over the second-place right-wing National Democratic Action Party (ADN) of ex-dictator Gen. Hugo Banzer.

Despite his victory, MNR candidate and millionaire businessman Gonzalo S'anchez de Lozada and his party have said they will appeal to the country's Supreme Court to nullify the results, claiming that the National Electoral Court carried out ``illegal acts'' during the count.

Unofficial estimates say that 780 ballot boxes - representing around 200,000 votes - have been annulled.

With only 54,000 votes separating the first-placed MNR from a third-place Revolutionary Movement of the Left Party (MIR), mutual accusations of fraud and manipulation have surfaced almost daily. And ugly disputes between party delegates in the regional electoral courts have caused delays in the count.

In the worse incident, in Trinidad, the count had to be stopped after the delegates failed to agree on which ballot boxes to annul. Five court officials dispatched from the capital, La Paz, to sort out the dispute, were attacked by angry militants of the MNR demanding ``the head of at least one of them.'' Only the intervention of a group of local journalists saved the court officials from serious injury.

The current system of vote counting is an open invitation to manipulation. All 1.6 million votes cast are counted manually under the scrutiny of party delegates, who control all the electoral courts. Delegates can easily annul a ballot box if they think their party is not doing particularly well: a smudge here, or missing signature there and the ballot box is declared void.

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