By PAOLA FLORES and CARLOS VALDEZ, Associated Press
LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A sudden halt in release of presidential election returns led to confusion and protests in Bolivia on Monday as opponents suggested officials were trying to help President Evo Morales avoid a risky runoff.
Morales topped Sunday’s election, but the last released results showed him falling a few points short of the percentage needed to avoid the first runoff in his nearly 14 years in power.
Still, he claimed an outright victory, saying that the uncounted votes would be enough to give a fourth term.
Bolivia’s top electoral authority stopped announcing new results at 7:45 p.m. Sunday—a point at which Morales had a lead of 45.3% to 38.2% over former President Carlos Mesa. As of Monday afternoon, it had not explained why it stopped releasing updated results.
Mesa, however, said there could be “manipulation of the vote to impede a second round” of voting that could imperil Morales’ hold on power.
Under Bolivian law, Morales would heed a 10 percentage point advantage over Mesa to avoid a December runoff in which opposition parties might unite against him.
Morales declared victory Sunday night and told supporters at the presidential palace that “the people again imposed their will.”
A special electoral mission from the Organization of American States said it was closely monitoring the election and urged the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to renew the release of results—though the official count is not due for seven days.
Morales, 59, a native Aymara from Bolivia’s highlands, came to prominence leading social protests and rose to power as the country’ first indigenous president in 2006. Since then, he has coasted to two re-election victories and presided over more than a decade of business-boosting economic growth in South America’s poorest country.
Following a boom in commodities prices, Morales paved roads, sent Bolivia’s first satellite to space and curbed inflation. Stadiums, markets, schools, state enterprises and even a village bear his name.
Being forced into a runoff “is a sharp blow to Morales, whose political success has been impressive and who seemed confident of a first-round win,” said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “Morales’ failure to achieve a first-round victory reflects growing concern about a slowing economy, corruption scandals and his determination to pursue a fourth term in defiance of a national referendum and the Bolivian constitution. Many Bolivians are simply weary. If re-elected, Evo will be in office nearly two decades.”
Mesa is a 66-year-old historian who as vice president rose to Bolivia’s top office when his predecessor resigned the presidency in 2003 amid widespread protests. Mesa then stepped aside himself in 2005 amid renewed demonstrations led by Morales, who was then leader of the coca growers union.
“In a second round the question will be if the opposition can unite behind one candidate,” said Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York and a senior research fellow at Chatham House. “In that case Evo may try to divide the opposition and use state resources to guarantee his victory.”
To avoid a runoff and win outright in Bolivia, Morales would have needed to get 50% of the votes plus one or have 40% and finish 10 percentage points ahead of the nearest challenger.
Bolivians also elected all 166 congressional seats. Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party lost seats although it retained a majority in Congress.
Morales allied himself with a leftist bloc of Latin American leaders and used revenues from the Andean country’s natural gas and minerals to redistribute wealth among the masses and lift millions out of poverty.
Surrounded by nations reeling from economic crises, Bolivia under Morales remains a rare example of stability and growth. The economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5%, well above the regional average, and the International Monetary Fund predicts it will grow at 4% this year.
But Morales also has faced growing dissatisfaction, especially over his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms. While Bolivians voted to maintain term limits in 2016, the country’s top court, which is seen by critics as friendly to the president, ruled that limits would violate Morales’ political rights as a citizen.
Associated Press writer Luis Andrés Henao in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.