LA PAZ, Bolivia — From Andean highlands to tropical lowlands, Bolivians lined up at the polls Sunday for a presidential election that took South America's poorest country a step beyond its turbulent political past.
The leading candidates were Hugo Banzer, 62, a retired general who ruled Bolivia for seven years after a military coup in 1971; Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, 58, a former planning minister who helped tame runaway inflation in 1985 and 1986, and Jaime Paz Zamora, 50, a moderate leftist who served as vice president in the early 1980s.
With about 20% of the votes counted, unofficial returns compiled by a nationwide television network gave Banzer 29.6% of the votes, Sanchez de Lozada 26.3% and Paz Zamora 22.5%. But Banzer was lagging far behind in rural vote returns, which were much slower coming in than the urban counts that favored him.
A reliable projection of the final results is not expected before today.
Runoff in August
Unless one wins a clear majority, the top two candidates will be the finalists for a congressional runoff vote in August.
At the polling places where they voted Sunday, all three front-runners emphasized that the election was a landmark for the consolidation of Bolivian democracy.
"Our democracy is being reaffirmed," Paz Zamora said.
"I believe the most important thing is that this right, which we did not have for many years, be appreciated and preserved by all," Sanchez de Lozada said.
And Banzer declared: "The important thing is to consolidate democracy."
Bolivia's is one of six presidential elections held or scheduled this year in South America, key events in a trend toward elected civilian governments that has swept the continent during the 1980s.
Paraguay held elections May 1, Argentina will elect a new leader on Sunday, Brazilians and Uruguayans are scheduled to go to the polls in November and Chileans are to vote in December.
In Bolivia, democracy functioned weakly for only brief periods between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. Coups kept a succession of military men in the presidential palace for most of that time.
Banzer seized power in 1971 from a radical leftist army general who had taken over in a coup the previous year. Another coup ended Banzer's tenure in 1978.
No civilian who came to office after that lasted more than three years. Hernan Siles Suazo, a leader of a revolutionary movement that gave this country a dozen years of authentic democracy between 1952 and 1964, won popular votes in 1979 and 1980. But he was only able to take office in 1982, with Paz Zamora as his vice president.
In 1985, the Siles administration foundered in political and economic turmoil, characterized by an annual inflation rate of more than 20,000%.
Elections were held a year early, and Banzer finished first with 29% of the votes. But in a runoff vote, congress elected former President Victor Paz Estenssoro, a founder with Siles of the National Revolutionary Movement and today's outgoing president.
As Paz Estenssoro's planning minister, Sanchez de Lozada helped reduce inflation to 10% in 1987. Tough austerity measures may have cost Sanchez de Lozada votes, and while he has insisted that the measures were necessary to reorder the economy and save democracy, he admits that the people now need relief.
"We can't expect this country to put up with four more years of austerity," he told foreign reporters on the eve of Sunday's election.
Eddy Flores, who voted at the Holanda school in a working-class neighborhood of La Paz, said the austerity measures had hurt sales at his tiny street-side clothing stall. But Flores, 30, said he voted for Sanchez de Lozada anyway.
'He Is Better Prepared'
"He is better prepared than the other candidates," Flores said. "He has promised jobs, and I believe in that more than anything."
At the Fe y Alegria school in a middle-class neighborhood, Elvira Machicao, 55, said she voted for Paz Zamora.
"He is a younger person with broader ideas, and the new generations have to come on," she said. At the same school, German Heuer said he voted for Banzer.
"From everything my parents had said, Gen. Banzer had a solid and strong government," said Heuer, a 22-year-old student of economics. "He saved Bolivia from a crisis. The country was about to go communist."
A few minutes later, Banzer entered the school auditorium to cast his own vote. Dozens of people crowded around him, giving the thumbs-up sign and chanting "Banzer! Banzer! Banzer!"