Protests erupt in Bolivia as Morales claims election win

Opposition candidate denounces ‘scandalous fraud’ as president set to avoid run-off poll

 

Demonstrators have taken to the streets in Bolivia after the counting of votes in Sunday’s presidential election descended into controversy with the result still poised on a knife-edge on Tuesday evening.

The country’s opposition has accused the government of President Evo Morales of fraud after the count was mysteriously suspended on Sunday night just as returns pointed to the need for a December run-off round between the incumbent and his closest rival Carlos Mesa. But when the count restarted Monday night Mr Morales had pulled far enough ahead of Mr Mesa to allow him claim outright victory on the first round.

In response protests erupted in cities across the Andean nation with offices of the electoral court set on fire in at least three cities and government and opposition supporters clashing in the capital La Paz.

Elsewhere roadblocks went up and in one town demonstrators toppled a statue of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who was a close ally of Mr Morales.

Mr Mesa, who served a brief stint as president before Mr Morales won the first of his three terms in 2005, described the preliminary result, which must still be confirmed by a comprehensive count, as a “scandalous fraud” while an observer mission from the Organisation of American States expressed its “profound preoccupation and surprise at the drastic change” in the count which it said was difficult to justify based on initial returns.

Tension

Mr Morales, who claimed victory on Sunday night even as the first results showed the contest heading for a second round, had banked on late returns from rural areas giving him the votes necessary to see off the threat of a second round.

But ratcheting up the tension, on Tuesday morning a new count update put Mr Morales on 46.4 per cent against 37.07 per cent for Mr Mesa. That means with over 95 per cent of votes counted Mr Morales is just shy of the ten-point advantage he needs over his nearest rival to avoid a run-off.

Mr Morales’s campaign was already controversial because of his refusal to recognise the result of a 2016 referendum that rejected his demand to be allowed run for a fourth consecutive term. His supporters have denounced the opposition protests as part of an attempted right-wing coup.

The disturbances in Bolivia are the latest in a wave of political and social unrest across South America. In Chile 15 people have died in protests sparked by a hike in public transport fares in the capital Santiago. Earlier this month Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, temporarily removed his government from the capital, Quito, after violent demonstrations against an austerity package that left at least seven people dead.

Meanwhile the region is still struggling with the fallout from the collapsing Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. The United Nations calculates that the crisis in the oil-rich nation has caused over four million people to flee, most of them to neighbouring states where there is growing alarm at the size of the exodus.