LA PAZ – Bolivia’s Evo Morales declared himself the outright winner Thursday of an election in which he was seeking a fourth term as president, enraging his opponents who alleged vote fraud and called for further protests to demand a second round of voting.
With more than 98 percent of the votes counted from Sunday’s election, Bolivia’s first indigenous president had 46.8 percent support against 36.7 percent for former president Carlos Mesa, just barely giving Morales the 10 percentage point lead over his nearest rival needed to avoid a runoff vote between the two. Seven other candidates were in the race.
“We won in the first round. There are 1.58 percent (of the votes) left to count but we won with the rural vote,” Morales, the region’s longest ruling leader, told a press conference.
But Morales later said that if the count of the final ballots showed he did not get enough votes, he would be open to a second round. As of midday Thursday, electoral authorities had still not announced a final result.
Opposition leaders quickly united in rejecting Morales’ victory claim and the celebrations by his supporters, demanding a runoff vote with Meza. Analysts have said that a united opposition might stand a chance of defeating Morales, a leftist former coca-growers union leader who has government the Andean nation for 14 years.
Flanked by other opposition leaders, Meza read a statement calling for “citizens and social groups to remain peacefully mobilized until they obtain respect for the will of the people.”
Morales, in turn, urged his supporters to defend his win and denied electoral fraud, demanding his detractors show proof.
“We are at the start of a crisis that could affect the social, political and economic stability of the country,” said political analyst Jorge Dulon of the Bolivian Catholic University.
The Andean nation has been on a knife-edge since the bitterly disputed vote.
Opposition backers have stage rowdy protests since Monday and burned Supreme Electoral Tribunal offices in three cities. The opposition bastion of Santa Cruz has seen two days of a partial strike “in defense of the vote and democracy.” On Thursday, Morales supporters announced marches in coca-growing region of Chapare, a bastion of support for the president.
International vote monitors have expressed concern at an earlier unexplained daylong gap in reporting results before a sudden spurt in Morales’ vote percentage. The Organization of American States has asked that the vote go to a second round because of the concerns.
The OAS observer mission released a statement expressing its “concern and surprise over the drastic change and difficult to justify tendency in the preliminary results.”
Morales has repeatedly said that he won the vote outright and that his opponents are conspiring to oust him.
“I want to denounce to the people and the world that a coup d’etat is underway,” Morales said at a news conference Wednesday. “The right wing has prepared it with international support.”
Morales did not specify where the alleged international support for the coup was coming from, but he regularly rails against U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
Suspicions of electoral fraud rose when officials abruptly stopped releasing results from the quick count of votes hours after the polls closed Sunday with Morales topping the eight other candidates, but also falling several percentage points short of the percentage needed to avoid the first runoff in his nearly 14 years in power.
Twenty-four hours later, the body suddenly released an updated figure, with 95 percent of votes counted, showing Morales just 0.7 percentage point short of the 10-percentage point advantage needed to avoid a runoff.
That set off an uproar among the opposition and expressions of concern by international monitors. Since then, results have slowly been updated.
Along with the OAS, the European Union and the U.N. expressed concern about the electoral process and called for calm. The United States and Brazil, among others, also expressed concerns.
Michael G. Kozak, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, warned Wednesday that Bolivian authorities will be held accountable if the process isn’t fair.
“I think you will see pretty strong response from the whole hemisphere, not just the U.S.,” Kozak said during a House hearing.
In Caracas, Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, voiced support for his ally Morales.
“It is a coup d’etat foretold, sung and, one can say, defeated,” he said.
Morales, 59, a native Aymara from Bolivia’s highlands, became the country’ first indigenous president in 2006 and easily won the two following elections amid more than a decade of a commodities-fed economic boom in South America’s poorest country. He paved roads, sent Bolivia’s first satellite to space and curbed inflation.
But he has faced growing dissatisfaction, especially over his refusal to accept the results of a 2016 referendum to keep limits on presidential terms. The country’s top court, considered by critics as friendly to the president, ruled that limits would violate Morales’ political rights as a citizen.
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