Andres Schipani reports for the Financial Times:
President holds wafer-thin lead over rival with 98.5% of ballots counted
President Evo Morales has claimed victory in a contentious Bolivian election following official results showing he was ahead by a whisker.
“We have already won in the first round,” Mr Morales told reporters in La Paz on Thursday. “We are very pleased, very happy, it is not official yet, but we have won.”
In an election that has split the Andean country, Mr Morales held a wafer-thin lead over his rival, former president Carlos Mesa, who had warned a day earlier that “there is a gigantic fraud in the making”.
With 98.5 per cent of ballots counted, official results showed Mr Morales was ahead with 46.8 per cent, while Mr Mesa was on 36.7 per cent. Mr Morales acknowledged there were still roughly 120,000 ballots to be counted, mainly from rural areas, which he said were his stronghold.
Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, who has been in power for 14 years, needed at least 40 per cent of the vote, plus a lead of more than 10 percentage points, to win outright and avoid a December run-off vote, which analysts said he may lose against a united opposition.
In an election in which more than 7m ballots were cast, Mr Morales’s lead was a little more than 616,000 votes, in the tightest result since he swept to a presidential victory for the first time in 2005.
The contested result followed days of unrest in Bolivia, where several offices of the electoral authority were set alight in several cities, following the election on Sunday that prompted expressions of concern from the US, the EU and the Organization of American States.
The OAS harshly criticised the electoral process, saying on Wednesday that “it would continue to be a better option to convene a second round”.
There were concerns about the decision by the electoral authority on Sunday evening to freeze the tally updates for nearly a day after it appeared that Bolivia was heading for a second round of voting. When the updates resumed on Monday evening, they revealed that Latin America’s longest-serving sitting president had stretched his lead and was heading for outright victory.
Mr Morales has accused the Bolivian opposition of plotting a coup, while Mr Mesa has said “it is clear that any result that gives Mr Morales the victory in the first round is the result of fraud”. He has called on the opposition to rally behind him, ready to “defend the vote” peacefully.
In a show of force, thousands of Morales supporters, including peasant farmers, miners and trade unionists, gathered in central La Paz to defend the result, chanting “Evo forever!”
In his 14 years in power, Mr Morales has won three sweeping presidential victories, survived a recall vote on his mandate and changed the Bolivian constitution. But in this election, his legitimacy has been shattered by concerns about his lack of respect for democracy.
He has already ignored a defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek an unprecedented fourth term, angering the Bolivians who consider him an autocrat, even a dictator, in the likes of his ally, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.