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Bolivia election spectacle takes to the ring

As Bolivia gears up for Sunday's presidential poll, the electoral battle is being played out in a La Paz wrestling ring, as the BBC's Andres Schipani reports.

"President Evo Morales" and "Manfred Reyes Villa"
"President Morales" easily crushed his adversary in the ring

In one corner - dressed in blue tights - is "Son of the People" President Evo Morales; in the opposite corner - with a fearful grin, sporting a bushy moustache, and green tights - is his main contender, a diminutive Manfred Reyes Villa.

With loyal fans screaming out "Evo, Evo!", the "president" climbs the corner ropes high above the ring, bounces once for momentum and flies high, arms outstretched for maximum effect.

And to the crowd's delight, the dive flattens his adversary.

"I knew it, I knew I was going to crush him… There was no doubt, Evo is better prepared for the ring, as well as for the electoral battle," victorious Alfredo Senso, Mr Morales's alter ego, told the BBC with his mask still on.

"That's the problem of playing Manfred, he always loses," replied wrestler Crescencio Choque.

Opinion polls suggest the real Manfred Reyes Villa is about to suffer the same kind of bone-crunching defeat as Mr Choque.

'Triumph for people'

Evo Morales, who came to power as Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2005, looks set to win a re-election easily.

Even with a landslide victory, he (Morales) won't have it that easy… He will still face harsh opposition in some regions
Carlos Toranzo
Bolivian political analyst

This would allow him to cement his leftist economic reforms, after a fractured opposition has failed to dent his popularity.

"I think I can achieve a huge triumph on 6 December, not a triumph for Evo Morales, but for the Bolivian people," the president said, adding that he needs more time to redistribute to the poor the profits from the natural gas industry he nationalised in May 2006.

As in the wrestling ring, the leading opposition contender is former army captain Manfred Reyes Villa, who has accused Mr Morales of having totalitarian ambitions.

The other main opposition candidate, wealthy cement businessman Samuel Doria Medina, was also mocked inside the wrestling arena.

He cites Mr Morales's political roots as a leader of the coca growers' union iand the alarming increase in Bolivia's cocaine production as reasons not to vote him back in.

Tough challenges

Despite both contenders' efforts, opinion polls suggest that the incumbent has more than 50% of the support of the population and a 30-point lead in the presidential race.

Samuel Doria Medina
Mr Doria Medina says Mr Morales has failed to stem the cocaine industry

The polls predict that he will easily win a second term and is likely to gain control of Congress in one of South America's most troubled and poorest countries.

But even with an expected big victory, analysts say Mr Morales will face demands from supporters who want a larger share of state revenues; protests in regions governed by the opposition, and a stiff challenge from right-wing regional leaders.

Since Mr Morales took office four years ago, fierce opposition in wealthy eastern regions - such as Santa Cruz, Tarija and Chuquisaca - have plagued his planned reforms.

"Tensions might have eased a little, but even with a landslide victory, he (Morales) won't have it that easy… He will still face harsh opposition in some regions," says political analyst Carlos Toranzo.

Mr Morales has earmarked industrialisation as his main priority for a second term.

That includes launching state cement, dairy, fertiliser, and pharmaceutical companies, natural gas processing plants, investing in hydroelectric projects and developing the Andean country's huge lithium reserves.

Spectacle

Like in Bolivia's violent political arena, during the wrestling performance there were plenty of headlocks, piledrivers and a lot of dirty fighting.

Evo Morales, celebrates his 50th birthday in the Aymara community of Batallas
Evo Morales portrays himself as a champion for indigenous Bolivians

Yet, despite almost four years of political polarisation that led to deadly clashes, ransacking of public buildings, and an attack on natural gas pipelines in opposition-led regions, there is still strong support for the man seen as the champion of the indigenous and poor masses.

So Mr Morales's opponents may need to find new ways to challenge him, inside as well as outside the ring.

"This is a spectacle," said a sweaty Mr Senso - still dressed as President Morales - while heading into a humble cinderblock-made dressing room, saluting the crowds.

"People know that and they appreciate our agility, our strength. And we do it for them, for the followers. And they are happy… Most of all they are happy because they know that, as in real life, Evo always wins."



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