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Protests, arson, looting in Bolivia as opponents accuse Evo Morales of trying to steal election

Opponents and international observers cried foul as incumbent Evo Morales appeared to be carving out a narrow first-round victory in Bolivia’s presidential race, after early election returns had suggested a runoff was likely.

Morales, the last man standing from the “pink tide” that swept leftists including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa to power in Latin America over the past two decades, had been held up as a global socialist icon, and the most effective of those leaders.

Morales’s government has invested heavily in social programs, infrastructure and anti-poverty initiatives. It also has been at pains to distance democratic and economically successful Bolivia from the leftists in Venezuela, who have been accused of resorting to fraud and violence to cling to ­power.

At issue now is the vote counting from Sunday’s elections. Preliminary returns that evening suggested the race was headed for a runoff that analysts said Morales had a strong chance of losing. Then the count was halted. When it resumed, the tally appeared to swing in his favor.

No official winner has been announced, but state TV has suggested an outright victory for the incumbent. Critics warned the election was in danger of losing legitimacy, violent protests erupted in several Bolivian cities, and the country was at risk of being seen as exactly what it has insisted it is not: another Venezuela.

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On Monday evening, election authorities announced that with 95 percent of the ballots counted, Morales was winning with 47 percent of the votes — just fractionally enough to avoid a December runoff against former president Carlos Mesa.

Protesters set fire to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal building in Potosi, leading two people on the second floor to jump to safety, and to election offices in Chuquisaca, Sucre and Tarija.

Thousands took to the streets across the nation, chanting slogans such as “No, and no, I don’t want to live in a dictatorship like the one in Venezuela.” In Riberalta, northeast of La Paz, the seat of Bolivia’s government, protesters tore down a statue of Chávez.

Ratcheting up pressure on Morales, the vice president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Antonio Costas, submitted his letter of resignation on Tuesday, citing the temporary suspension of the public reporting of election results. In a copy of the letter provided to The Washington Post by Costas, he denounced the suspension as a "decision that led to the discrediting of the entire electoral process, leading to unnecessary social convulsion."

Bolivia is the latest in a wave of Latin American nations to break out in violence. Protests continue in Chile and Haiti, after demonstrations in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Honduras.

A civil society group in Santa Cruz, the economic capital and an opposition stronghold, called for a national strike on Wednesday and invited the business community and agriculture workers to meet to discuss the possibility of calling a permanent strike should Morales be proclaimed the outright victor.

An Organization of American States observer mission made up of representatives from across the region expressed “worry and surprise about the drastic and hard to justify change in the tendency of the preliminary results.” The OAS planned to meet in Washington on Wednesday to consider the “situation in Bolivia.”

Bolivian Foreign Minister Diego Pary Rodríguez said Tuesday that the government had asked the OAS to audit the vote to guarantee its integrity. He said the government had an interest in the process being seen as transparent and fair. Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the OAS, announced on Twitter on Tuesday evening that the organization had agreed to audit the election.

The United States denounced the election results in Bolivia and suggested manipulation.

“The U.S. rejects the Electoral Tribunal’s attempts to subvert #Bolivia’s democracy by delaying the vote count & taking actions that undermine the credibility of Bolivia’s elections,” tweeted Michael G. Kozak, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “We call on the TSE to immediately act to restore credibility in the vote counting process.”

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Morales’s opposition decried the vote count as fraudulent.

“What is happening in Bolivia is a gigantic fraud to rob us of our right to go to a second round, where we have a chance of winning,” Mesa told CNN on Monday night. “We are talking about a clearly established fraud by a government that has the electoral council at its service.”

Latin American observers said Bolivia would be entering dangerous territory if Morales was declared the outright victor, a move that could lead to international condemnation and perhaps even sanctions.

Accusations of election fraud in Venezuela are what led to the isolation of the government of President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor. The United States has declared Maduro a usurper, recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader and imposed sanctions that have helped paralyze the nation.

In Bolivia, “the electoral process has been bizarre and highly suspect,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “It is hard to escape the conclusion that Evo is brazenly trying to steal the election to avoid a runoff that he might well lose.

“He is intent on perpetuating himself in power. He sees himself as Bolivia’s savior who deserves another term.”

Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, which analyzes Bolivian politics and drug policy, said attacks by opposition protesters on vote-counting centers could hinder a fair count. By the same token, she said, the decision by the electoral tribunal to suspend the count for 20 hours after Morales appeared headed to a runoff and then suddenly announce results that appeared to show him winning outright strains faith in the electoral process.

“It’s not clear what happened because of the erratic and nontransparent way in which the electoral tribunal froze voting results,” Ledebur said. “At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. There is an uncertainty, and the road from here on out is going to be rocky and complicated for everyone involved. In this situation, all Bolivians lose.”

Just the fact that Morales was running for a fourth term was controversial. He organized a referendum in 2016 that would have allowed him to sidestep term limits and lost. Then he secured a court ruling that enabled him to run again anyway — drawing fire from opponents, who said it fit an authoritarian pattern that has also included heavy-handedness with anti-development demonstrators, the media and political opponents.

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First elected in 2006, Morales — Bolivia’s first indigenous president — easily won reelection in 2009 and 2014 based on his economic successes. After 13 years, Bolivians are healthier, wealthier, better educated, living longer and more equal than at any time in the history.

But this time around, polls suggested many Bolivians had soured on Morales, viewing him as out of touch and distant. He was losing his shine amid a slowing economy and allegations of government corruption and an undemocratic power grab, even as many Bolivians have acknowledged the economic benefits of his governance.

On Sunday evening, after a count based on 83 percent of the vote showed Morales almost surely headed to a runoff, he nevertheless proclaimed a “new victory.”

“A new victory. We won again. Four consecutive elections we have won in Bolivia,” Morales said at his party’s headquarters. “And the most important thing is that we again have an absolute majority in the chambers of deputies and senators.”

Rachelle Krygier in Miami and Lucien Chauvin in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report. 

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