By CARLOS VALDEZ, Associated Press
LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivian President Evo Morales said Wednesday his opponents are trying to stage a coup against him as protests grow over a disputed election he claims he won outright, though a nearly finished vote count suggests it might head to a second round.
The leftist leader needs a 10 percentage-point margin over his closest rival to avoid a December runoff in which he’d risk being defeated by a united opposition in his bid for a fourth consecutive term in office.
And the vote count Wednesday had him with a 9.48 percentage point lead with just 3.22 percent of the votes from Sunday’s election left to count. He led former President Carlos Mesa 46.49% to 37.01%.
Mesa has warned of fraud, and international vote monitors have expressed concern at an earlier unexplained daylong gap in reporting results before a sudden spurt in Morales’ vote percentage. Opposition backers have staged rowdy protests since the vote.
Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and the region’s longest-ruling leader, repeated his claim that he won outright and said his opponents were conspiring to oust him.
“I want to denounce to the people and the world that a coup d’etat is underway,” Morales said in a press conference in which he did not take any questions. “The right wing has prepared it with international support.”
Morales did not specify where the alleged international support for the coup is coming from, but he regularly rails against U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
He cited the burning by protesters of electoral offices in two cities where votes are being tallied as proof of the coup.
“We are waiting for a report from the Electoral Tribunal, although the TREP [a quick count] has already said that we won,” the president said.
But the tribunal’s quick count webpage, whose results are not binding, showed Morales with a 10.1 percentage point lead over Mesa with about 96 percent of polling place counts verified Wednesday.
Opposition leaders, in turn, have called on Bolivians to defend “the citizen vote and democracy” in the streets against suspicions of fraud by Morales’s party.
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.
Yet, the president claimed an outright victory late Sunday, telling supporters that the votes still to be counted — largely from rural areas where he is most popular — would be enough to give him an outright victory.
Twenty-four hours later, the body suddenly released an updated figure, with 95% 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.
The observer mission of the Organization of American States asked for explanations and the European Union and the U.N. expressed concern about the electoral process and called for calm. The United States and Brazil, among others, joined the orders.
The Permanent Council of the OAS will hold a special meeting to consider the situation in Bolivia.
The crisis was aggravated by the resignation of the vice president electoral council, Antonio Costas, who said he disagreed with the decision to interrupt transmission of the vote count.
On Tuesday, the Andean nations saw a second night of violent protests in several cities. Then on Wednesday, a strike erupted in Santa Cruz, the most populous eastern region and opposition stronghold, that was felt mostly in transportation. Protesters in other regions announced that they will join to demand respect for the vote.