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Bolivia's President Morales Insists He Hasn't Lost Re-Election Referendum — Yet

Early results and exit polls show Morales loosing his bid to be allowed to run in presidential elections for a forth time in 2019, but the country's first indigenous president insists that rural votes yet to be counted could change the result.
February 22, 2016, 7:50pm
Photo by Jorge Ábrego/EPA

Bolivia's President Evo Morales has accused those celebrating the early results in Sunday's referendum — which show him losing the chance to seek a fourth term in office — of both jumping the gun and preparing the way to unjustifiably accuse him of fraud.

"They are celebrating before time," Morales said in a televised press conference on Monday.

The night before, exit polls gave the "no" vote a narrow but clear victory of between two and four percentage points that sent crowds onto the streets in several important cities chanting "Bolivia Said No."

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The latest official results on Monday showed that "no" was winning with 61 percent, although nearly two thirds of the votes were still to be registered and Morales stressed that many of those are in outlying rural areas where his support tends to be overwhelming.

"If the countryside vote changes the results, well there will obviously be fraud [according to the opposition]," he said.

Related: The Year the 'Pink Tide' Turned: Latin America in 2015

Carlos Hugo Morales, editor of the Santa Cruz-based newspaper El Deber said that the referendum has highlighted how deeply split Bolivia is over the issue of whether Morales should continue in power.

"The truth is that we are facing a country that is polarized between those who want continuity of the current presidency and those who reject the perpetuation in power of Evo Morales," he said.

Morales, whose political roots go back to his days as a leader of the radical coca leaf growing union, is the Andean country's first indigenous president.

He is lauded as a pragmatic reformer by some who stress the dramatic increase in per capita income while he has been in power, as well as the rise of an indigenous middle class.

Opponents accuse the president of limiting civil liberties, tolerating corruption, and failing to protect the environment.

The referendum asked the Bolivian electorate to ratify or reject a constitutional reform, which was approved by the congress last year and would allow presidents to govern for three consecutive terms. In Morales' case this would mean four consecutive terms because his first successful election, in 2006, took place before the country's current constitution.

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The allegations of irregularities in polling on Sunday began to mount up before voting was over, particularly in parts of the country where opposition to Morales is strongest.

The most-reported cases took place in two polling stations set up in schools in the lowland city of Santa Cruz where people found themselves unable to vote because key parts of the documentation never arrived.

Officials said this was because the drivers bringing the documents had got lost, although both the schools are located near the center of Santa Cruz that is one of the country's least-indigenous cities as well as Bolivia's economic hub, and a hotbed of anti-Morales feeling.

The day ended with voters burning the ballot papers and ballot boxes, claiming that this was the only way to ensure they were not stuffed with 'yes' votes later.

A video widely circulated on social media showed frustrated voters rebuking officials with chants of "We want to vote" and "It's because you know you are going to lose." It was not clear if the video was shot in one of the stations where the ballots were later burned.

In another polling station, a member of the citizen council overseeing the vote called Sabastián told VICE News that he had seen more than 100 "no" votes noted down as "yes" votes. He said his complaints to the council were brushed off. He said he was too nervous of reprisals to give his second name.

Facebook and Twitter were filled with similar allegations from the "no" camp, which Morales dismissed on Monday.

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"I feel that those who use social networks to spread lies are damaging the values of the new generations," he said. "They are not damaging Evo, they are damaging Bolivia."

Michael Shifter, head of the US-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told Reuters news agency that the tight vote was a surprising blow to Morales, who won the 2014 election with more than 60 percent support.

"While few can deny that Bolivia has seen impressive economic growth and social progress under Morales' rule, many voters are sending a message that it is not enough — they are demanding clean government, accountability and more competitive politics," Shifter said.

"He is one of the most charismatic and powerful leaders in Bolivian history. It is unlikely he is going to just retire from politics," he said. "But perhaps for the first time in a decade, it is possible to imagine a Bolivia without Evo that does not return to the old times of economic and racial exclusion."

Morales had appeared to have victory almost assured a few months ago. At the time he was one of the few leaders of the so-called Pink Tide of leftist leaders, who took power in Latin American around the turn of the century, to retain his popularity.

His sudden troubles were partly triggered by a personal scandal that emerged in recent weeks involving a former lover allegedly obtaining a highly paid job for a government contractor.

Opposition leader Samuel Doria Medina described the result as "a victory of the people against abuse, and of all those young Bolivians on social networks who have participated so actively."

On Monday, Morales promised that he would accept the official result, whatever it is, and would live to fight another day.

"I am not going to get desperate whatever the vote," he said. "Even if "no" wins, the struggle, and life, continues."

Related: Bolivian President Evo Morales Wants Fourth Crack at the Job

Follow Gemma Candela on Twitter: @Gemma_Candela