Evo Morales has accused Bolivia’s opposition of plotting a coup against him, after they challenged election results suggesting the incumbent president may have won a contentious fourth term as president.
“I want to denounce before the Bolivian people and the world that there’s a coup d’état in the making,” Mr Morales said on Wednesday as he declared a state of emergency. He called on his supporters to “mobilise peacefully” and be “prepared to defend democracy” in a country with a history of violent street protests.
The dramatic intervention followed days of unrest in Bolivia following an election on Sunday that prompted expressions of concern from both the Organization of American States and the EU.
Protesters set fire to electoral offices in a number of cities while demonstrators took to the streets of the administrative capital La Paz to accuse the government of tampering with the results to win another five-year term. Police used tear gas to disperse them.
Mr Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader who has been in power for 14 years, on Wednesday continued to hold a lead over his rival, the former president Carlos Mesa. With 96.78 per cent of ballots counted, official results showed Mr Morales was ahead with 46.49 per cent, while Mr Mesa was on 37.01 per cent.
He requires at least 40 per cent of the vote, plus a lead of more than 10 percentage points, to win outright. If he wins, he would avoid a December run-off vote, which analysts said he may lose against a united opposition.
However, Mr Morales insisted that when the remaining votes came in from the countryside he would win outright. “I am very sure that with the vote from the rural areas we will win on the first round,” he said.
In an election in which more than 7m ballots were cast, Mr Morales’s lead was less than 600,000 votes, the tightest result since he swept to a presidential victory for the first time in 2005.
Addressing thousands of supporters in La Paz on Tuesday, Mr Mesa attacked Mr Morales and reiterated that he would challenge the result. “Bolivia’s society will teach the dictator we are capable of facing him without violence . . . Democracy, yes, dictatorship, no,” said Mr Mesa.
Adriana Salvatierra, president of Mr Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) party in the Senate, said that if Mr Mesa “had proof of the supposed fraud he should present it”.
There are concerns about the decision by the electoral authority on Sunday evening to freeze the tally updates for nearly a day after it appeared that Bolivia was heading for a second round of voting. When the updates resumed on Monday evening, they revealed that Latin America’s longest-serving sitting president had stretched his lead and was heading for outright victory.
On Tuesday the vice-president of the electoral authority resigned, citing the extended freeze of preliminary results, but insisting that the count was “completely accurate”.
Following a request from the Bolivian government, the OAS, which initially called the result “inexplicable”, agreed on Tuesday to verify all the results but only if the government accepts its conclusions as binding.
Local leaders in the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz have called for an “indefinite strike until democracy is respected”. MAS supporters, including groups of peasant farmers and miners and trade unions, said they would “mobilise” to “firmly defend our democracy, our vote”.
Mr Morales has won three sweeping presidential victories, allowing him to survive a recall vote on his mandate and change the constitution.
This time, however, his legitimacy has been undermined by concerns about his lack of respect for democracy. He has already ignored a defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek an unprecedented fourth term, angering many Bolivians who consider him an autocrat.
His followers, however, hail him as the man who “re-founded” a country historically scarred by racism and poverty. Bolivia’s economy has quadrupled during his time in office and poverty rates nearly halved in one of the region’s poorest countries.