Protesters flood Bolivia capital with Morales on brink of victory

Largest protest in Bolivia in decades reported as opposition leader and his supporters refuse to recognise polls result.

    Protesters gathered outside the hotel in La Paz where the country's electoral board was processing remaining ballots on Tuesday [David Mercado/Reuters]
    Protesters gathered outside the hotel in La Paz where the country's electoral board was processing remaining ballots on Tuesday [David Mercado/Reuters]

    Bolivia's opposition supporters furious over what they saw as an attempt by leftist President Evo Morales to rig the election on Sunday, have protested outside the hotel in the capital city of La Paz where the country's electoral board has been processing remaining ballots.

    With the official vote count at 97 percent on Tuesday night, Morales extended his lead over his chief rival Carlos Mesa to 9.42 percentage points, just short of the 10-point lead he needs to avert a runoff.

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    The winner needs more than 50 percent of the vote, or 40 percent plus a 10-point lead to avoid a second round of voting in December.

    Morales had 46.46 percent and Mesa 37.04 percent in the legally-binding tally late on Tuesday.

    Even if the pace of Morales's lead holds and he secures an outright win, the election's legitimacy has been scarred, with Mesa and his supporters refusing to recognise that result.

    Suspicions of vote manipulation were sparked on Sunday after the official electoral board, Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), abruptly halted its electronic quick count after it showed Morales and Mesa were heading towards a second round, with 84 percent of votes counted.

    When the quick count resumed after an outcry on Monday, Morales had eked out a nearly 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. Two people were forced to jump from a burning building in the city of Potosi.

    Morales's government has denied any meddling and has called for calm. But in La Paz and other cities, protests resumed on Tuesday night.

    "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 city centre, undeterred by police barriers and setting off firecrackers to summon more people to the demonstration.

    The demonstration was one of the largest in Bolivia in decades, according to a Reuters witness, who put the number of protesters at more than 100,000 people.

    Opposition candidate Carlos Mesa
    Opposition presidential candidate Carlos Mesa has accused the national electoral body of attempting to rig the result of the Sunday's election [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

    Carlos 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 metres 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 landlocked 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's 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.

    The OAS observer mission had issued a statement calling on electoral officials "to firmly defend the will of the Bolivian citizenry".

    "The OAS Mission expresses its deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls," it added

    The foreign ministries of Argentina, Brazil and Colombia also expressed concerns about the situation.

    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.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency