By Mat Youkee
Protests have broken out across Bolivia after the country’s electoral authorities said that president Evo Morales was close to winning an outright victory in his bid for a historic fourth term in office.
The country’s electoral body abruptly stopped releasing election returns late on Sunday, prompting opponents to suggest that officials were trying to help Morales avoid a runoff vote.
At that point Morales had a lead of 45.3% to 38.2% over the second-place candidate, former president Carlos Mesa. Late on Monday, the body renewed its count and said that with 95% of votes counted, Morales led 46.41% to Mesa’s 37.06%.
Under Bolivian law, Morales would need a 10-percentage point advantage over Mesa to avoid a second round in December. The official final count is not due for seven days.
In a statement the Organization of American States (OAS) expressed its “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls” and urged for calm.
Opposition groups have not heeded that call. Mesa, who had warned that the vote could be manipulated to avoid a runoff, called on Bolivians “to conduct a battle in defense of the vote.”
Police opened fire with tear gas as protesters clashed with government supporters outside local offices of the electoral tribunal in the capital La Paz, and the cities of Oruro, Potosí and Cochabamba.
In Sucre the offices were set on fire as videos appeared to show police units abandoning their posts. In Camiri, the centre of Bolivia’s lucrative gas industry, videos showed protestors attacking the offices of the national oil company.
In Santa Cruz, opposition figures called for an indefinite country-wide strike starting tomorrow while supporters chanted “no tenemos miedo, carajo!” (“We aren’t scared, dammit!”).
Stoking the protestors’ anger were videos shared widely on social media which purportedly showed highly irregular electoral processes, including boxes of ballot papers lying abandoned in a La Paz street and piled high in a warehouse in Potosí.
The interior minister, Carlos Romero, accused the opposition of trying to create trouble, warning that “they have to take care of the violence they’re generating.”
Rodrigo Riaza, a research analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “If Morales wins outright in the first round, the opposition will double down on their claims of fraud, which they have built up throughout the campaign.”
The US acting assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Michael Kozak, tweeted: “The U.S. rejects the Electoral Tribunal’s attempts to subvert #Bolivia‘s democracy by delaying the vote count & taking actions that undermine the credibility of Bolivia’s elections.”
Credit: The Guardian, www.theguardian.com