LA PAZ – Crowds of jubilant foes of former President Evo Morales celebrated in the streets Monday after the embattled Bolivian leader stepped down following weeks of massive protests, but the resignation of every constitutionally designated successor left unclear who will take his place and how.
Angry supporters of the socialist leader set barricades ablaze to block some roads leading to the country’s main airport as tension gripped the nation.
Morales himself lashed out at political opponents, calling it a return to the bleak era of coups d’etat overseen by Latin American militaries that long dominated the region. “(Opponents) lie and try to blame us for the chaos and violence that they provoked,” Morales tweeted Monday.
His nearly 14-year presidency abruptly ended Sunday, hours after he had accepted calls for a new election by an Organization of American States team that found a “heap of observed irregularities” in the Oct. 20 election whose official result showed Morales getting just enough votes to avoid a runoff against a united opposition.
Morales stepped aside only after the military chief, Gen. Williams Kaliman, called on him to quit to allow the restoration of peace and stability. It wasn’t immediately clear who would succeed Morales, or how his successor would be chosen.
His vice president also resigned as did the Senate president, who was next in line. The only other official listed by the constitution as a successor, the head of the lower house, had resigned earlier.
The European Union called for calm, saying it stood ready to send election observers to monitor any new polls if a request is made.
“If the conditions are right, we will be ready to work on it,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said. She added that credible elections could be held soon, “most importantly, avoiding any form of violence from any side, and showing a level of statesmanship that is needed in this moment.”
Bolivian opposition leader Carlos Mesa said Morales was brought down by a popular uprising, not the military, countering Morales’ claim he was the victim of a coup. The military made a decision not to deploy in the streets because “they didn’t want to take lives,” Mesa said.
There were no immediate signs that the military itself was maneuvering for power, although analysts warned the power vacuum opened up space for the military to potentially step in.
“I think we have to keep a close eye on what the military does over the next few hours,” said Jennifer Cyr, associate professor of political science and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona. “Are they overstepping their role?”
The first member of Bolivia’s indigenous population to become president, Morales brought unusual stability and economic progress, helping to cut poverty and inequality in the impoverished nation. He remains deeply popular among many Bolivians, and his backers have clashed with opposition demonstrators in the disturbances that followed the October vote.
The leadership crisis escalated in the hours leading up to Morales’ resignation. Two government ministers in charge of mines and hydrocarbons, the Chamber of Deputies president and three other pro-government legislators announced their resignations. Some said opposition supporters had threatened their families.
In addition, the head of Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Maria Eugenia Choque, stepped down after the release of the OAS findings. The attorney general’s office said it would investigate the tribunal’s judges for possible fraud, and police later said Choque had been detained, along with 37 other officials on suspicion of electoral crimes.
Bolivia’s police commander, Gen. Yuri Calderon, joined the list of resignations Monday, stepping down following allegations that police failed to curb unrest.
Late Sunday, Morales, whose whereabouts remained unknown, went on Twitter to claim authorities were seeking to arrest him.
“I report to the world and Bolivian people that a police officer publicly announced that he has instructions to execute an unlawful apprehension order against me; in addition, violent groups also stormed my home,” Morales said.
Armed intruders did break into Morales’ home in Cochabamba, but the police denied any arrest order had been issued.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard also described the ouster as a military coup, saying that 20 members of Bolivia’s executive and legislative branches were at the official Mexican residence in La Paz seeking asylum.
Ebrard also tweeted that Mexico would offer asylum to Morales if should ask for it, though there was no indication he had. “What happened yesterday is a step back for the whole continent,” Ebrard said. “We’re very worried.”
Morales was elected in 2006 and went on to preside over a commodities-fed economic boom in South America’s poorest country. The combative former leader of a coca growers union paved roads, sent Bolivia’s first satellite into space and curbed inflation.
But even many backers eventually grew wary of his reluctance to leave power.
He ran for a fourth term after refusing to abide by the results of a referendum that upheld term limits for the president — restrictions thrown out by a top court critics claimed was stacked in his favor.
After the Oct. 20 vote, Morales declared himself the outright winner even before official results indicated he obtained just enough support to avoid a runoff with opposition leader Mesa, a former president. A 24-hour lapse in releasing results also fueled suspicions of vote-rigging.