LA PAZ – Bolivia is being wracked by its biggest protests in decades following a disputed Oct. 20 election in which President Evo Morales declared himself the outright winner of a fourth consecutive term, avoiding the need for a runoff vote against his top rival. Allegations of fraud by the opposition have fed weeks of sometimes violent protests, which Morales has called an attempted coup after what he says was a fair election. Here's a look at how Bolivia got to this point.
WHY HAS MORALES' ROAD TO RE-ELECTION BEEN CONTROVERSIAL?
Morales, a former coca-growers union leader and Bolivia's first indigenous president, first took office Jan. 22, 2006. He formed a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution that was approved in a 2009 referendum. Among the changes in the new charter was allowing the president one consecutive re-election. Morales' term as president was to have run from 2006 to 2011, but he called an early election for Dec. 6, 2009, on the grounds that the Andean nation was being refounded with the reformed constitution. He easily won that vote.
Morales then contended his 2009 election counted as his first election under the constitution, meaning he could run in the 2014 election, and Bolivia's Constitutional Court backed his position. With the opposition weak and fragmented, he won office again in 2014, which his critics argue was his second re-election.
WHY WAS MORALES ALLOWED TO RUN AGAIN THIS YEAR?
With the constitution preventing him from seeking another re-election in 2019, Morales called a referendum in 2016 that proposed allowing a second consecutive re-election for the president and vice president.
Voters narrowly rejected the proposal. But rather than accept the result, Morales' party convinced the constitutional court to rule that his candidacy was legal, saying term limits violate a citizen's human right to run for office. Bolivia's top electoral court then accepted his candidacy.
Morales' refusal to accept the result of the referendum strengthened the opposition and led to the formation of so-called citizen platforms that launched protests against Morales' presidential candidacy in 2019, calling it illegal.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE LATEST ELECTION?
After almost 14 years in power, Morales was considered to be weakened heading into the Oct. 20 vote and facing the closest election of his presidential career. Most polls pointed to him leading the first round of voting with 32% to 38% support in a field of nine candidates, which would not be enough for him to win outright. Under Bolivian law, a candidate needs 50% of the votes, or 40% with a 10 percentage-point advantage over the nearest rival, to win outright.
With the president's support falling short of the thresholds, it appeared he would end up in a runoff against the second top vote-getter, expected to be former President Carlos Mesa. Analysts said a united opposition stood a chance of defeating Morales in a runoff.
The opposition accused the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of being dominated by Morales supporters, and several of its magistrates resigned ahead of the election. A good part of its computation team also resigned.
WHY IS THE OPPOSITION ALLEGING ELECTORAL FRAUD?
On election day, Bolivians closely followed both the quick and preliminary counts of the vote. Tensions rose when officials abruptly stopped releasing results from the official quick count just hours after the polls closed. The last numbers released showed Morales topping the eight other candidates, but also falling several points short of the percentage needed to avoid a runoff.
Yet, the president claimed an outright victory, telling supporters that the votes still to be counted — largely from rural areas where he is most popular — would be enough to give him an outright victory. After 24 hours of not reporting any results, electoral officials suddenly released an updated vote count, with 95% of votes counted, showing Morales close to a first round victory.
The variation in the projection of the vote led the chief of the Organization of American States observer mission, Manuel Gonzales, to declare that "we are facing an inexplicable change in trend that drastically modifies the destiny of the election and generates loss of confidence in the electoral process." The European Union, the United Nations, the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia supported the OAS.
Updates trickled out after that, then the official count ended up showing Morales with 47.08% of the votes, compared to Mesa's 36.51% — just over the 10-point edge required for victory. Mesa and other opponents accused Morales' party of manipulating the results.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE THE ELECTION?
Protesters burned the headquarters of local electoral tribunal offices and set up roadblocks that have paralyzed parts of Bolivia. Violent clashes between government supporters and Morales' opponents have led to three deaths and more than 100 people injured.
With protests continuing to rage, the United Nations on Thursday urged Bolivia's government and opposition to talk and restore peace. "Nothing justifies clashes between Bolivians, and the death of citizens is unconceivable," the U.N. statement said.
Morales, who denies the allegations of electoral fraud, has agreed to let the OAS audit the election results.
Approaching 14 years in office, he is already the longest-serving president in Bolivian history, while his Movement Toward Socialism party controls all branches of government as well as much of the Bolivian media.