Bolivians angry over vote count storm capital as election hangs in balance

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians furious over what they saw as an attempt by leftist President Evo Morales to rig Sunday’s election protested outside the hotel in the capital city of La Paz where the country’s electoral board was processing remaining ballots on Tuesday. Supporters of Bolivian presidential candidate Carlos Mesa hold Bolivian flags as they protest next to national electoral computing center in La Paz, Bolivia October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei MarcelinoWith the official vote count at 96%, Morales extended his lead over his chief rival Carlos Mesa to 9.36 percentage points, just short of the 10-point lead he needs to avert a riskier run-off with Mesa. Even if the pace of Morales’ lead holds and he secures an outright win, the election’s legitimacy has been scarred, with Mesa and his supporters vowing not to recognize that result. Suspicions of vote manipulation were sparked on Sunday after the official electoral board, Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), abruptly halted an electronic quick count after it showed Morales and Mesa were likely headed to second-round, with 84% of votes tallied. When the quick count resumed after an outcry on Monday, Morales had eked out a 10-point lead, sparking criticism from international election observers and a night of rioting across Bolivia, with several electoral offices attacked or set on fire, forcing two people to jump from a burning building in the city of Potosi. Morales’ government has denied any meddling and has called for calm. But in La Paz and other cities, protests resumed for a second day by nightfall on Tuesday. “They robbed my vote,” said Steve Quintela, a 31-year-old lawyer as he headed to downtown La Paz. “Of course the vote has been manipulated by the presidency.” Shouting insults at Morales and chanting “We’re not afraid, damn it!” anti-government protesters filled entire avenues of the highland capital downtown, moving past police barriers as firecrackers set off to summon more people to the demonstration rang out in the night. The demonstration was one of the largest in Bolivia in decades, according to a Reuters witness, who put the number of protesters at least 100,000 people. Mesa made a surprise appearance at the protest in front of the hotel after returning from Bolivia’s second largest city of Santa Cruz, a key base of his support. “Right now, a few meters from us, an enormous fraud is being committed to make us think there won’t be a second round vote,” Mesa told crowds in reference to the electoral board. “They’re lying to the country and turning their backs on your vote!” Police fired tear gas to disperse crowds for more than an hour, with some protesters responding by throwing rocks at them. FEARS OF PROLONGED UNREST The unrest marked a major jolt for the land-locked country, which has had a long stretch of political stability under Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and Latin America’s longest continuous-serving standing leader. In an attempt to calm the uproar, Morales’ government walked back the president’s comments from Sunday, when he declared he had won the election and only needed rural votes to confirm another “historic, unprecedented” victory for his government. Stressing that the quick count was only a non-binding preliminary tally, Foreign Minister Diego Pary invited the official election observer, the Organization of American States (OAS), to audit the official vote count. On Monday, the OAS said the change in the results of the quick count after it resumed had “drastically modified the fate of the election” and hurt confidence in the process. “Whatever the result may be, we as the government are going to accept it,” Pary told a news conference, noting the opposition had cried foul play before the vote began. The president of the TSE, Maria Eugenia Choque, denied any attempt at electoral fraud in tearful comments before reporters earlier on Tuesday. But in a major blow to the board’s credibility, its vice president, Antonio Costas, resigned in protest, saying the pause in reporting the quick tally had discredited “the entire electoral process, causing an unnecessary social convulsion.” Before his resignation, Costas told Reuters in an interview on Monday that he had not come under any political pressure to halt the tally but said he could not speak for the other five members of the board. The winner in the crowded race of nine candidates needs more than 50% of the vote, or 40% plus a 10-point lead. Morales had 46% and Mesa 37% in the legally-binding tally late on Tuesday. It was unclear if Morales’ government would accept the OAS’s condition to enforce the audit’s conclusions. Morales, who has stayed out of the public eye since Sunday, was scheduled to give a news conference early on Wednesday, when a special meeting at the OAS has been convened to discuss the Bolivian election. Slideshow (18 Images)In La Paz earlier on Tuesday, roads near markets were clogged as residents loaded up on food while long lines formed at some gas stations amid fears of prolonged unrest or a military curfew. A political group affiliated with Morales, Conalcam, slammed the unrest as part of a coup d’etat orchestrated by the right-wing opposition and called on supporters to defend Morales’ “victory” with peaceful counter-protests. It called for a national mobilization on Wednesday. Reporting by Monica Machicao and Daniel Ramos Additional reporting and Writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by David Gregorio, Leslie Adler & SImon Cameron-MooreOur Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Source: Reuters

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