by José Arturo Cárdenas
LA PAZ, Bolivia (AFP) — Bolivian President Evo Morales declared victory Thursday in elections whose disputed results have triggered riots, a general strike and opposition charges that he is trying to steal a fourth term in office.
Hours later, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) on its website declared Morales the winner with 99.8 percent of the ballots counted from Sunday’s vote.
Morales had 47.1 percent, the tribunal said, against 36.5 percent for his closest rival, the centrist Carlos Mesa.
Mesa needed to be within 10 points of Morales’ score to force a runoff.
The TSE has been heavily criticized for its conduct of the court process, including by its own vice-president, who resigned.
“We won in the first round,” Morales confidently told the earlier news conference. He called this “good news.”
But he said that if he did not obtain the 10-point margin he would respect that result. “If we have to go to a second round, we will go,” he said.
The new mandate means Morales, already Latin America’s longest-serving president will remain in power until 2025.
Mesa said Wednesday he would not recognize results tallied by the tribunal, which he accused of manipulating the count to help the leftist Morales win.
Mesa is insisting there be a runoff between him and the president, and called on supporters to keep protesting in the streets of this resource-rich but poor South American country.
Observers from the Organization of American States have expressed concern over the vote count, which first showed Morales and Mesa in a tight race and headed for a runoff, and then shifted dramatically Monday to give the president a wider lead.
The European Union said Thursday it shared the OAS assessment “that the best option would be to hold a second round to restore trust and ensure the full respect of the democratic choice of the Bolivian people.”
“We call on all parties to refrain from violence and from making declarations that are divisive,” it said.
Election offices torched
Brazil, Argentina, and the US also expressed concern over how the votes were tallied.
The US State Department updated its travel alert for Bolivia, urging “increased caution… due to civil unrest.”
Violent protests have raged all week, and fresh clashes broke out Thursday between supporters of both sides in Santa Cruz, the economic capital and opposition stronghold.
Demonstrators wrapped in the national flag shouted: “Bolivia said No!”
Offices in the city housing Bolivia’s electoral authority were set on fire overnight when security forces clashed with demonstrators in La Paz and elsewhere.
At least two people close to the ruling party MAS were injured in separate clashes.
On Monday, after the release of the controversial election results, mobs torched electoral offices in Sucre and Potosi, while rival supporters clashed in La Paz.
A general strike went into force Wednesday.
The Catholic church in Bolivia has called for a runoff election as the best way to end the crisis.
The 59-year-old president obtained Constitutional Court permission in 2017 to run again despite a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians said no to letting him do so.
The onetime leftist union leader has led Bolivia for the past 13 years, though his popularity has waned amid allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.
Morales points to a decade of economic stability and considerable industrialization as his achievements, while insisting he has brought “dignity” to Bolivia’s indigenous population, the largest in Latin America.
© Agence France-Presse