The level of popular support in Bolivia for a presidential candidate who opposes American efforts to eradicate the coca crop from which cocaine is produced has started political analysts and angered Washington.
Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian activist, had been dismissed as an outsider, but he is is in third place, just behind Manfred Reyes Villa, a former mayor, and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a former president and owner of the country's biggest mine, who leads with nearly 25 per cent of the vote. Congress will have to pick the new President, to be inaugurated next month, if none of the 11 candidates wins more than 50 per cent of the ballots cast last Sunday.
Campaigning has concentrated on cocaine, corruption, and anti-globalisation, playing on widespread discontent with the market reforms in the Andean region during the past two decades. Mr Morales entered politics by leading the coca farmers' battle against the US-backed eradication programme.
When the US ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, warned that Washington could cut off aid if Bolivians chose a candidate such as Mr Morales, popularity for the outsider soared. This was despite the fact that more than $100m a year goes to Bolivia in exchange for coca eradication. The diplomat was criticised for interfering with the elections, but his comments bolstered Mr Morales' standing as a radical anti-US candidate.
Mr Morales was expelled from Congress last year on charges of inciting violence after roadblocks by the coca farmers led to bloody clashes.
Few expected Mr Morales, who had surged from 4 per cent to 12 percent in pre-election polls, to make it into third place. More than 60 per cent of Bolivians live below the poverty line, and in rural areas, where the population is overwhelmingly indigenous, 90 per cent are destitute. It is one of the poorest nations in Latin America and violent crime isrife.
The current leader, President Jorge Quiroga, is prohibited from running for a second term. Mr Quiroga took office when Hugo Banzer resigned last year after a diagnosis of cancer. He died in May.