Bolivia’s Morales agrees to new elections after damning OAS audit

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivian President Evo Morales agreed on Sunday to hold new presidential elections after a damning report from the Organization of American States (OAS) found serious irregularities in an Oct. 20 vote won by the leftist leader.

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales addresses the media at the presidential hangar in the Bolivian Air Force terminal in El Alto, Bolivia, November 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Morales’ victory last month sparked widespread protests around the country.

The OAS report, issued earlier on Sunday, said the October vote should be annulled after it had found “clear manipulations” of the voting system that meant it could not verify the result.

Morales, speaking at a press conference in La Paz, also said he would replace the country’s electoral body. The department has come under heavy criticism after an unexplained halt to the vote count sparked widespread allegations of fraud and prompted the OAS audit.

When questioned about whether he would be a candidate in the new election, Morales told a local radio station that “the candidacies must be secondary; what comes first is to pacify Bolivia,” adding that he has a constitutional duty to finish his term.

Morales, who came to power in 2006 as Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, has defended his election win but had said he would adhere to the findings of the OAS audit.

The election turmoil has rattled Morales, a survivor of Latin America’s leftist “pink tide” two decades ago, while shaking faith in the stability of Bolivia’s democracy. The crisis threatens to topple the leftist icon at a time when left-leaning leaders have returned to power in Mexico and Argentina.

The weeks-long standoff over the disputed election escalated over the weekend as police forces were seen joining anti-government protests and the military said it would not “confront the people” over the issue.

“The manipulations to the computer systems are of such magnitude that they must be deeply investigated by the Bolivian State to get to the bottom of and assign responsibility in this serious case,” the preliminary OAS report said.

“The first round of the elections held on October 20 must be annulled and the electoral process must begin again,” the OAS added in a separate statement.

Voting should take place as soon as conditions are in place to guarantee it being able to go ahead, including a newly composed electoral body, the OAS said.

The OAS added that it was statistically “unlikely” that Morales had secured the 10 percentage point margin of victory needed to win outright.

In an outright win that had allowed Morales to avoid a riskier second round run-off, he was declared the winner of the election with a lead of just over 10 points over his rival Carlos Mesa.

The protests erupted afterward, particularly because of a nearly 24-hour halt during the vote count.

Morales and his government decried a “coup” against him during the unrest by what they called “violent groups, prompting a number of fellow leftist leaders in the region, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, to rally around him and call for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Frances Kerry and Richard Chang

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