President Evo Morales was close to avoiding a runoff in his re-election bid in Bolivia, the country’s top electoral authority said on Monday, a day after a sudden halt in the release of returns stoked confusion and protests.
Opponents had suggested that officials were trying to help Morales avoid a runoff against a unified opposition.
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Morales topped the eight other candidates in Sunday’s presidential election, but the last released results showed him falling only a few points short of the percentage needed to avoid the first runoff in his nearly 14 years in power.
He claimed an outright victory late on Sunday, saying uncounted votes would be enough to give him a fourth term. He told supporters at the presidential palace that “the people again imposed their will.”
Bolivia’s top electoral authority stopped announcing new results on Sunday evening – a point at which Morales had a lead of 45.3 percent to 38.2 percent over his closest rival, former President Carlos Mesa.
On Monday night, the agency renewed its “quick” count and said that with 95 percent of votes counted, Morales had 46.41 percent to Mesa’s 37.07 percent.
In La Paz, Al Jazeera’s John Holman said such a long gap was “unusual” and that results usually trickled in steadily.
“A lot of questions are being asked about why the count was frozen and why, when it opened up again, Morales had enough of a lead to make him a winner in this round,” Holman said.
Mesa warned earlier that there could be “manipulation of the vote to impede a second round” of voting that could imperil Morales’ 14-year hold on power.
Under Bolivian law, Morales needs a 10-percentage point advantage over Mesa to avoid a second-round election in December. The official count is not due for seven days.
Risk of unrest
After the release of results was stopped, a special electoral mission from the Organization of American States said it was closely monitoring the election and urged the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to renew the release of results.
Mesa called on citizens and civic groups “to conduct a battle in defence of the vote”.
“They can’t take away democracy from us,” he told his supporters in Santa Cruz, a stronghold of opposition to Morales.
The interior minister, Carlos Romero, accused the opposition of trying to create trouble, warning that “they have to take care of the violence they’re generating.”
Groups of Bolivians demonstrated in favour of Morales and others against him outside vote-counting centres across the country on Monday.
By nightfall, clashes between the two sides broke out in places, and police in La Paz used tear gas trying to quell the fighting.
“There is a heightened risk of social unrest at the moment,” said Rodrigo Riaza, a research analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“If Morales wins outright in the first round, the opposition will double-down on their claims of fraud, which they have built up throughout the campaign. Protests would follow, although they are unlikely to topple Morales,” Riaza said. “International support would be weak, as there is little appetite in the region to contest Morales’ legitimacy.”
Morales, 59, an Aymara from Bolivia’s highlands, came to prominence leading social protests and became the country’s first indigenous president in 2006. Since then, he has coasted to two re-election victories and presided over more than a decade of growth in South America’s poorest country.
Following a boom in commodities prices, Morales paved roads, sent Bolivia’s first satellite to space and curbed inflation. Stadiums, markets, schools, state enterprises and even a village bear his name.
Being forced into a runoff would be a blow to Morales, “whose political success has been impressive and who seemed confident of a first-round win”, said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank, noting concerns about the slowing economy, corruption scandals and Morales push for a fourth term in defiance of both a national referendum and the Bolivian constitution.
“Many Bolivians are simply weary,” Shifter said. “If re-elected, Evo will be in office nearly two decades.”
Mesa is a 66-year-old historian who, as vice president, rose to Bolivia’s top office when his predecessor resigned the presidency in 2003 amid widespread protests. Mesa then stepped aside in 2005 amid renewed demonstrations led by Morales, who was then leader of the coca growers union.
“In a second round the question will be if the opposition can unite behind one candidate,” said Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York and a senior research fellow at Chatham House. “In that case, Evo may try to divide the opposition and use state resources to guarantee his victory.”
Bolivians also elected all 166 congressional seats. Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party lost seats although it retained a majority in Congress.
Surrounded by nations reeling from economic crises, Bolivia under Morales remains a rare example of stability and growth. The economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5 percent, well above the regional average, and the IMF predicts it will grow at four percent this year.
But Morales also has faced growing dissatisfaction, especially over his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms.
While Bolivians voted to maintain term limits in 2016, the country’s top court, which is seen by critics as friendly to the president, ruled that limits would violate Morales’ political rights as a citizen.