Early returns have indicated that Bolivian President Evo Morales faces defeat in a referendum on seeking a fourth term in power, but he is sitting tight pending results from his rural strongholds.
On Monday, Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, promised to respect the official results of Sunday’s vote on whether he can run for re-election to extend his time in office to 19 years.
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But he insisted on waiting for full results to trickle in from rural areas where he has strong support, and from abroad.
“We are going to respect the results, whether it be a No or a Yes. We always have respected them. That is democracy,” he told a news conference.
“We are going to wait patiently for the final whistle from the electoral tribunal. We are optimistic,” added Morales, a keen football fan.
Morales, 56, wants to run for another five-year term when his current one ends in 2020, to continue a socialist programme credited with improving the fortunes of poor indigenous groups.
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Exit polls published by private media late on Sunday indicated Morales narrowly lost the vote.
An Ipsos poll for ATB television said the “No” vote had 52.3 percent against 47.7 percent for “Yes”. A survey by Mori for Unitel television gave the No vote 51 percent against 49 percent for Yes.
Partial official results with more than a third of votes counted on Monday showed about 62 percent for No and 38 percent for Yes.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said it expected to have an official result with 90 percent of votes counted within two days.
Morales “remains, however, a popular leader”, Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler reports from La Paz.
“Even Evo Morales’ enemies would accept that he’s had a huge impact on Bolivia, and that the country will never be the same again.”
Opposition figures celebrated their projected victory.
Samuel Doria Medina – defeated twice by Morales in presidential elections – said: “We have recovered democracy and the right to choose.”
The early results “are showing strong support [for Morales] in the provinces, but in the main cities and even in the medium-sized ones, there is a strong No vote,” said analyst Jorge Komadina.
However, “the forces of the opposition are scattered” and lack a single leader, he said. “They are a disparate grouping of leaderships and political intentions.”
Morales said that he was prepared to give up on a fourth term if voters rejected the bid.
“With my record, I can leave happily and go home content. I would love to be a sports trainer,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Alleging ‘US hoax’
In January, Morales became the longest-serving president since Bolivia’s independence from Spain in 1825 – rare in a country that has seen numerous military coups.
He is one of a generation of Latin American leftist leaders who champion “21st-century socialism”.
He has overseen robust economic growth, but opponents accuse him of presiding over corruption and investing in flashy infrastructure projects at the expense of health and education.
Since first taking office, he has been strongly re-elected twice.
Bolivia’s mineral and gas-rich economy has more than tripled in size during his decade in office.
But his popularity has suffered amid allegations that he used his influence in favour of CAMC, a Chinese engineering company that signed contracts worth $576m with Bolivia.
The president rejected the allegations as “a hoax by the US embassy” to discredit him. He insisted he had “nothing to hide”.
A defeat could disrupt the remainder of his mandate by weakening him as leader of his Movement to Socialism party, a grouping of unions and social movements, analysts say.
“These results will probably cause an internal struggle to replace him,” analyst Andres Torres told AFP.
“It is very difficult to find a successor with his capacity to unite people within social organisations.”