Tensions rose in Bolivia on Saturday as police forces across the country carried out acts of “mutiny” in support of opposition protesters who for weeks have been challenging the results of an election amid cries of “coup” from socialist President Evo Morales.
The police revolt started on late Friday afternoon in the central city of Cochambamba when security forces took over a police station and raised a banner reading “No to fraud. Out with Evo Morales!” They were swiftly joined by anti-Morales protesters cheering the “police mutiny,” which rapidly spread to Sucre, Santa Cruz, Potosí and Oruro.
The police unrest follows weeks of protests across the country after a contested election on October 20 gave Mr Morales a razor-thin victory over former president Carlos Mesa. Ever since, protesters have been taking to the streets with the opposition believing that they have been fraudulently denied a second round run-off through manipulation of the vote count. This weekend, and for the second time since the presidential election, Mr Morales accused the Bolivian opposition of plotting a coup.
“Sisters and brothers, our democracy is at risk from the coup d’état that violent groups have launched that undermine the constitutional order,” he said on late Friday.
On Saturday, Mr Mesa countered that it is “a lie that the government is trying to position . . . it is not true. The only protagonist of a coup is President Morales, when he decided to make a monumental fraud,” in the election following a still-unexplained decision by the electoral authority on the night of the vote to freeze the tally updates for nearly a day after it appeared that Bolivia was headed 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 going for outright victory. The move sparked furore which reached its peak this weekend as protesters from several parts of Bolivia were reportedly on their way to the administrative capital, La Paz.
Analysts and diplomats believe protesters must tread carefully, as cornering Mr Morales could bring his firebrand supporters to the streets, forcing a full political crisis in a country that has historically been fissiparous and volatile. The Organisation of American States, which is carrying out an audit of the vote, urged calm and condemned “the acts of violence that have been recorded in various parts of the country.”
Mr Morales has been bleeding legitimacy amid 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, survived a recall vote on his mandate and changed the Bolivian constitution. Yet he has ignored a defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek a fourth term, angering some Bolivians who consider him an autocrat, even a dictator, in the likes of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.
The opposition is led by two figures with clashing styles and personalities, Mr Mesa, a sober historian from La Paz who on Saturday declared “we are in hours that are decisive for the destiny of the country” and Luis Fernando Camacho, a fiery political leader from the wealthy eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz, who early on Saturday charged: “We are not overthrowing a government, we are liberating an entire nation!”