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After Morales resignation, a question for Bolivia: Was this the democratic will or a coup?

Bolivian President Evo Morales resigned on Nov. 10 after nearly 14 years in power amid a fierce backlash over a disputed election. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Bolivians, leaderless and dazed after weeks of protests, confronted a gaping power vacuum and the outbreak of more violence Monday following the resignation of longtime president Evo Morales, the leftist icon who was forced from power a day earlier amid accusations his party stole last month’s election.

As new protests erupted from both the right and the left — some peaceful, some not — Mexico’s foreign minister announced that Morales had accepted that country’s offer of asylum, and Morales tweeted that he was en route there for sanctuary. In La Paz, a cross section of politicians struggled to find a solution to a constitutional crisis of leadership. Authorities requested military help as Morales supporters attacked police stations.

A protracted period without a legal head of state, some feared, could deepen the violence and stall attempts to hold fresh elections.

All four officials in the constitutional line of succession — the president, the vice president and the heads of the senate and chamber of deputies, all socialists — resigned on Sunday. That left remaining lawmakers scrambling to cobble together a quorum to appoint a new leader — something they appeared unable to do Monday. Opposition leaders tried to reassure their socialist counterparts of their safety should they return to chambers.

Senior U.S. State Department officials said they expected a new interim leader to be named by Tuesday.

Jeanine Añez, the fiercely anti-Morales second vice president of the senate, said she would accept a caretaker presidency if offered, and some opposition officials rallied around her. My “only objective would be to call elections,” she told reporters.

As South America’s poorest nation processed the fast-moving events, its citizens confronted a key question: Had democracy failed or prevailed?

Morales, who transformed Bolivia during his nearly 14 years in office, described the pressure that forced him out on Sunday as a “coup.” Hours before his resignation, the Organization of American States said it had found “clear manipulation” of the Oct. 20 election in which he claimed to win a fourth term. Violence that had simmered since the vote escalated. The heads of the armed forces and police withdrew their support, and the opposition unfurled a wave of attacks on Morales’s socialist allies.

Carlos Mesa, the former president who finished second to Morales last month, rejected the word “coup.” Speaking to reporters Monday, he called the events of the previous 24 hours a “democratic popular action” to stop a government that had committed election fraud to install itself as an authoritarian power.

Mesa said no one from Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) should be picked as interim leader, but he insisted that MAS members should not fear persecution.

“The clear will of the democratic opposition is to build a new democratic government, respecting the constitution,” he said.

The U.S. government hailed Morales’s departure. Officials said there had been no “coup” but an expression of “democratic will.” They cited the OAS finding of fraud and noted that Morales had sought a fourth term despite losing a 2016 referendum to extend term limits. (He later won a court ruling that enabled him to run.)

“The United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution,” President Trump said in a statement. “These events send a strong signal to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua that democracy and the will of the people will always prevail. We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere.”

Bolivia’s Morales resigns amid scathing election report, rising protests

Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, said Morales had accepted the country’s offer of asylum.

“A few minutes ago we received a call from President Evo Morales,” he said at a news conference. “He responded to our invitation and is verbally and formally requesting asylum in our country.”

Ebrard said Mexico had offered asylum “for humanitarian reasons and because of the urgent situation in Bolivia where his life is at risk.”

Ebrard said Mexico had informed Bolivia of Morales’s visa request so that his safe passage could be guaranteed. He did not say when Morales was due to arrive in Mexico. He described the decision as part of Mexico’s long-standing tradition of offering haven to the politically oppressed.

Bolivia remained without a clear leader. The OAS, a U.N.-like body made up of countries of the Western Hemisphere, said it would reject “any unconstitutional resolution of the situation.”

“The General Secretariat calls for peace and respect for the Rule of Law,” the organization said in a statement. It urged the Bolivian legislature to install new election officials and “guarantee a new electoral process.” It also called for legal action against those responsible for election fraud.

Bolivia was confronting deep divisions and lingering violence — with the strong possibility of more. Sunday night, opposition protesters looted and burned the homes of socialist politicians including Morales. At least 20 MAS officials sought asylum at the Mexican Embassy. La Paz Mayor Luis Revilla Herrero, a Morales critic, said 64 city buses were burned. Schools and businesses were closed Monday, and transportation was shut down.

The homes of Morales critics — including a journalist and academic — were also torched.

Morales urged doctors, nurses and teachers to “go back to offering services to the population.” But he continued to denounce his ouster as illegal and expressed sympathy for his backers who set up roadblocks, attacked police stations and protesters in La Paz, El Alto and elsewhere. He claimed some of his supporters had been killed.

“One day after the civic-political-police coup, the police are repressing with bullets and causing deaths and injured in El Alto,” Morales tweeted. “My solidarity with those innocent victims, one of them a young girl, and the people of El Alto, who defend democracy.”

Some Morales critics were clearly out for vengeance against a government that had ruled Bolivia since 2006. Right-wing leader Luis Fernando Camacho called Sunday evening for two more days of protests and said he would present proposals for the prosecution of Morales, former vice president Alvaro Garcia Linares and MAS legislators.

“Let’s start judgments of the criminals of the government party, putting them in jail,” Camacho said in a video statement.

Two members of the electoral tribunal — its former president María Eugenia Choque and former vice president Antonio Costas — had already been detained. An election official in Santa Cruz, Sandra Kettels, was arrested Monday morning. The prosecutor’s office has announced warrants against all tribunal officials.

One key question was whether the right-wing opposition, now clearly in control of the country, would allow the socialists to field a candidate in new elections after the OAS found evidence of election fraud. Morales claimed a 10 percent margin of victory in the Oct. 20 vote — just enough to avoid a second round, in which his chances of losing would have been high.

Morales, who won past elections in landslides, had worn out his welcome. He ran for a fourth term despite losing a national referendum on term limits. But the socialists still command significant support in Bolivia, and a decision to bar them would risk more conflict.

Socialism doesn’t work? An emerging middle class of Bolivians would beg to differ.

While the United States and the opposition celebrated Morales’s ouster, observers warned that his departure could generate more chaos. Before his arrival on the political stage, Bolivia experienced a period of political instability that led to six presidents in one decade. The anti-Morales protesters in the streets do not hue to one political line, nor answer to one master.

The dizzying succession of events Sunday reverberated across Latin America. In Venezuela, analysts said, the left-wing, authoritarian government could take the attacks on Bolivian socialists as proof that voluntarily ceding power would be dangerous.

“In Venezuela, you have the statements by the opposition saying they want to work with [the left], that there won’t be any revenge,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “I think there’s going to be a lot more skepticism of that after seeing what’s happening in Bolivia.”

Debate over whether democracy had been restored or broken raged across the region. Morales’s socialists were accused of stealing an election. But critics said the military’s decision to pull its support and the mob rule that forced him out were anything but constitutional.

Views fell largely along ideological lines, exposing the political divisions among and within Latin American nations and also the sensitivity to a word — “coup” — that invokes images of 20th-century military interventions in the region, many of them backed by the United States.

But the word can also be used by ousted leaders as a shield against civic movements meant to hold authoritarian leaders accountable.

“It has become increasingly hard to define what constitutes a coup,” said Nicolás Saldías, senior Latin America researcher at the Wilson Center. “Evo Morales engaged in electoral fraud. You could argue that constitutional order was broken, which is a basic institution of democracy. What are the armed forces, which swear loyalty to the constitution, supposed to do then?”

Some nations criticized the OAS for largely standing by while Morales was forced from office Sunday.

“We are going to urgently request a meeting of the Organization of American States, because yesterday, silence prevailed,” Mexico’s Ebrard said Monday. “How can silence be maintained in the face of an event of this gravity?”

He reiterated that Mexico believes what happened Sunday constituted a coup.

“What we can’t tolerate is when a military tells a president that he has to leave office,” he said. “What happened yesterday is a setback for the entire continent.”

Argentina, run by outgoing center-right president Mauricio Macri, took a different view.

“For our government, there was no coup,” Normando Alvarez García, the Argentine ambassador to Bolivia, told a local radio station. “There’s an interruption of the constitutional order based on social unrest.”

Why political turmoil is erupting across Latin America

Chile is the latest Latin American country to erupt in violent protest. Here’s why.

Ecuador’s indigenous people are leading the anti-government protests. They have a record of ousting presidents.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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