Bolivia’s embattled president, Evo Morales, said Sunday that he would permit new elections as his government tries to weather growing protests in the wake of an Oct. 20 presidential vote that monitors said was marred by fraud.
In a morning speech, Mr. Morales said the elections would be held under the auspices of a new electoral board. The announcement came after days of antigovernment protests in several Bolivian cities, in which some police officers also participated, shaking Mr. Morales and his leftist government.
“After this decision, I ask that we lower the tension,” Mr. Morales said. “We have an obligation to bring peace to Bolivia.”
Carlos Mesa, a former president who ran against Mr. Morales and finished second in the first round of voting, said that Mr. Morales should be banned from participating in a new election and that demonstrators shouldn’t let down their guard.
“There was a gigantic fraud here,” Mr. Mesa told reporters after Mr. Morales’s announcement. “If [Mr. Morales] has one iota of patriotism, he should step down.”
Just hours earlier, the Organization of American States, which had been invited by the Bolivian government to observe the election, had said that the first round of voting, held three weeks ago, should be cancelled and a new election called. The Washington-based international body said its audit had turned up “clear manipulation” of the voting system.
“The first round of the elections held last October 20 must be annulled and the electoral process must begin again,” the OAS said. It said that the first round of voting should be held again “as soon as there are new conditions that give new guarantees for it to take place.”
Mr. Morales didn’t provide details such as when the election would be held or if he would consider staging just a second round, which is what Mr. Mesa, a 66-year-old historian, had initially been demanding. The president limited himself to saying the new elections would “permit the Bolivian people to democratically elect their new officials incorporating new political actors.”
An Aymara Indian and former leader of the coca growers union, Mr. Morales, aged 60, had risen to power leading protests against governments aligned with the U.S. One of those toppled was that of Mr. Mesa, who, in the face of demonstrations demanding that he nationalize Bolivia’s natural-gas industry, resigned in 2005. Six months later, in 2006, Mr. Morales was elected in a landslide and has since been re-elected twice.
The president’s new position came after a prominent opposition leader, Luis Fernando Camacho, a civil leader from the lowland city of Santa Cruz, said he would lead a march on Monday to the presidential palace with a resignation letter for Mr. Morales to sign. Police officers in several cities joined protesters on Saturday, and the armed forces said “that we will never confront the people to whom we have a duty.”
With the loyalty of the police in question, and the military appearing to say it wouldn’t crack down, the president was left without the institutional firepower needed to put down demonstrations that had grown violent.
Mr. Morales’s government reacted defiantly to the growing protests and the mutiny by some police, with the president saying a coup had been launched against his government, which has been in power nearly 14 years and would rule for 19 years if given another term.
While the president won the voting on Oct. 20, early returns from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and an independent quick count indicated he hadn’t garnered enough votes to force a runoff. Since Mr. Mesa was one of eight opposition candidates in the first round, his possibilities of winning in a second round were strong, according to analysts and polls.
But with more than 83% of the votes in that night, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which is controlled by Mr. Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism party, suddenly stopped publishing results. At the time, Mr. Morales was ahead of Mr. Mesa by 7 percentage points but needed a margin of 10 percentage to win outright.
When the vote-counting resumed, the president’s lead gradually increased to the 10 percentage points he needed to avoid a politically perilous runoff. Three days later, on Oct. 23, Mr. Morales announced he had won by more than half a million votes and called on supporters to defend his government as demonstrations picked up momentum.
The OAS observers at the time questioned the sudden shift at the electoral tribunal and recommended a runoff, expressing “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results.”
In Sunday’s statement, the OAS said that “the manipulations of the computer system are of such magnitude that there should be a profound investigation by the Bolivian state to get to the bottom of and determine who is responsible for this grave case.”
Though Mr. Morales had been a juggernaut in past elections, this year’s vote shaped up as an uphill battle for him.
He had initially declared he would step down after three terms but changed his mind and tried to amend the constitution to run for a fourth. Voters rejected that move in a 2016 referendum, but a constitutional court packed with allies ruled in his favor, saying term limits violated Mr. Morales’s human rights.
Most TV and radio stations are either controlled by or friendly to the government, international press-freedom groups say, and during the campaign offered up glowing reports about Mr. Morales. When a September opinion poll showed that the president and Mr. Mesa were likely headed toward a runoff, the government warned Bolivian news organizations against publishing the poll’s results. Risking stiff fines, few did.
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