Bolivia's Morales claims victory in disputed election

Bolivian President Evo Morales (AFP Photo)

Bolivian President Evo Morales declared victory Thursday in elections whose disputed results have triggered riots, a general strike and opposition charges that the leftist leader 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 per cent of the ballots counted from Sunday's vote.

Morales had 47.1 per cent, the tribunal said, against 36.5 per cent for his closest rival, the centrist Carlos Mesa.

Mesa needed to be within 10 points of Morales to force a runoff.

The TSE has been heavily criticized for its conduct of the count process, including by its own vice-president, who resigned.

"We won in the first round," Morales confidently told an earlier news conference, calling it "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.

He stood for a fourth successive term despite Bolivia's constitution limiting presidents to two consecutive mandates.

Speaking at a rally in La Paz alongside center and right-wing parties, as well as business leaders, Mesa called for a second round and urged his supporters to continue their industrial action in the streets of this resource-rich but poor South American country.

On Wednesday he had said he would not recognize results tallied by the tribunal, which he accused of manipulating the count to help Morales win.

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, then shifting 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.

The governments of the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia likewise called on Bolivia's government "to restore credibility in its electoral system" by allowing a second-round run-off.

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, as 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.

Morales, 59, tried to change the term limits provision in Bolivia's constitution but lost a referendum on the subject in 2016.

A year later, though, he obtained Constitutional Court permission to run again. Critics accuse him of filling the court with loyalists.

The onetime 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.

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