Bolivia’s socialist president Evo Morales has agreed that fresh elections should be held “to lower the tension and pacify” the country as protesters challenge the results of a poll that saw him secure a controversial fourth term in office.
“With the risk of serious confrontations between Bolivians, as president my main mission is to protect life, preserve peace . . . that is why I have decided . . . to convene new national elections so that through the vote the Bolivian people can democratically elect their authorities,” a visibly tired Mr Morales said on Sunday in a televised address.
He added that the electoral commission — which controversially delayed release of the full results of the presidential poll in October — would be replaced.
Mr Morales’ move followed a rise in unrest across Bolivia as well as calls this weekend from a regional body for fresh polls amid concerns that the official result — which saw him secure a razor-thin majority over former president Carlos Mesa — was “statistically improbable”.
It is unclear when new polls would be held or how this would work. Mr Mesa has called for the national assembly to agree on a “new electoral body and a schedule for the new election”. He also said that Mr Morales “cannot be” a candidate in future polls.
On Friday, police forces across the country came out in support of opposition protesters and on Saturday, the chief commander of the Bolivian armed forces, Williams Kaliman, said that “we will never enter into a confrontation with the people”, seen as a reference to anti-Morales protesters.
Reiterating accusations that the protesters were seeking to foment a coup, Mr Morales had first called for an “open agenda debate to pacify Bolivia” and political talks. But this was swiftly rejected by several politicians, including his closest rival in last month’s election, Mr Mesa, who said: “I have nothing to negotiate with Evo Morales.”
Tensions have been high since Mr Morales secured his victory.
This follows a still-unexplained election night decision by the electoral commission to freeze count updates for nearly a day after it appeared that Bolivia was headed for a second round of voting.
When the electoral commission resumed updates, they revealed that Latin America’s longest-serving sitting president had stretched his lead and was headed for outright victory. The move sparked unrest, which reached its peak this weekend as protesters from several parts of Bolivia made their way to the administrative capital, La Paz, sometimes clashing with firebrand supporters of Mr Morales.
Mr Morales position as outright victor in the October 20 elections became untenable after the Organisation of America States (OAS), which is carrying out an audit of the vote, released a preliminary report highlighting “irregularities that vary from very serious to indicative” in the election and vote counting process. The OAS said that it was “statistically improbable” that Mr Morales bagged a first-round victory and recommended new elections.
With some in the opposition demanding his immediate resignation, Luis Almagro, OAS secretary-general, said in a statement that Mr Morales’ mandate, which ends in January, “should not be interrupted”. Mr Morales has been losing legitimacy amid growing concerns over his lack of respect for democracy.
In his 14 years in power, Bolivia’s first indigenous president has won three sweeping presidential victories and changed the Bolivian constitution. But he ignored a defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek a fourth term, angering Bolivians who feared he may have autocratic tendencies. “If Evo Morales has one iota of patriotism, he should step aside,” said Mr Mesa on Sunday.