Police have fired tear gas at protesters who had taken to the streets in the capital of Bolivia over the country’s disputed election results.
The clashes came on Tuesday as sitting President Evo Morales and opposition candidate Carlos Mesa wrestled over an audit of the results of the October 20 election, the results of which have been cast into doubt because of a brief suspension of the publication of an electronic count of the vote.
With 84 percent of the votes counted on election day, polling showed Morales was likely headed to a runoff with Mesa. However, when reporting resumed after nearly 24 hours, it showed Morales had pulled off a razor-thin victory.
The final, legally binding vote tally gave Morales 47.08 percent of votes to Mesa’s 36.51 percent, less than a percentage point more than the 10-point margin needed to avoid a runoff.
The results triggered protests and strikes that have closed roads, schools and businesses around the country for more than a week.
Morales, a leftist seeking a fourth term, was eventually declared the winner, prompting accusations of fraud from Mesa and his supporters.
In La Paz, opposition protesters built road blocks of rope, wooden boards and sheets of metal. Rows of helmet-clad riot police lined some streets, separating Morales’s supporters from protesters opposed to the president.
Tear gas was used in at least two locations to disperse protesters.
Morales, who has been in office nearly 14 years and is Latin America‘s longest-serving leader, has said the Organization of American States (OAS) will audit the election and that he will go to a second round if fraud is found. The OAS said on Saturday they hoped to begin the audit at some point this week.
“We, in the most transparent and secure way, confident in the sovereignty of the people, have invited an international audit,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia told reporters early on Tuesday.
“We have called on the OAS and brother countries so they can clear up any doubt with respect to the malicious campaign of the losing candidate, who refuses to accept the decision of the Bolivian people,” Garcia said.
“We want to ask Carlos Mesa, the losing candidate, to join the audit,” he added. “We await a speedy and affirmative response.”
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and Morales both deny any irregularities.
Speaking in the industrial city of Santa Cruz, Mesa told journalists he wanted assurances from the government that the results of any recount will be binding.
“Are they prepared to recognise the TSE’s final results?” Mesa asked. “Is the government prepared to back down?”
“We will not accept a solution that mocks popular will. We will not accept a solution that turns its back on the October 20 vote and we will not turn our backs on people who are fighting democratically and peacefully in the streets,” he added.
Protesters in the streets lobbed accusations of fraud at Morales.
“The audit doesn’t help now,” said Pamela Velez, 37, as police deployed gas at a barricade in the central part of the city. “[The Morales government] has had a week to fix up [the vote].”
Mesa, a former president, told Reuters News Agency in an interview on Monday that strikers would not accept negotiations to end protests.
Five protesters were injured by gunshots on Monday in Santa Cruz. Police have said they are investigating the incident.