Bolivia's Morales blasts opposition 'coup' as tensions build over vote count
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian leader Evo Morales, again claiming victory in the country's fraught presidential election, accused the opposition on Wednesday of trying to orchestrate a coup after anti-government protests that charged the vote counting was rigged.
Hundreds of people with flags and fireworks chanted into the night on Wednesday outside the electoral building in La Paz, as the official vote count, which has been mostly static all day, showed the leftist Morales with 46.69% of the vote with 97.5% of ballots counted from Sunday's election - 9.85 points ahead of main rival Carlos Mesa.
That left Morales, who has governed landlocked Bolivia for almost 14 years, just short of the 10-point lead needed to win outright and avoid a risky runoff, although it appeared only a matter of time before that threshold was breached.
In the plaza, the mood was boisterous more than outright angry, with small bonfires and mostly young people chanting that they did not want to live in a dictatorship.
"Evo has accumulated so much power. Look at everything that has happened, he doesn't want to leave," said Franco Garcia, 21, adding he voted for Mesa, a former president, because he would be easier to topple if needed.
"If we continue with Evo, then something like Venezuela awaits us. He has too much power."
The unrest began after an official quick vote count was disrupted by a day-long halt starting late on Sunday, when the count of almost 84% of ballots showed the two main rivals heading to a second round.
The tensions mark the most severe challenge to Morales' rule since he took office in 2006 as the country's first indigenous leader.
In a fiery speech earlier at the government office in the capital, La Paz, Morales criticized recent violence that saw electoral offices torched and skirmishes between protesters and police, which he blamed on the right-wing opposition and what he described as their foreign backers.
"I have called this conference to denounce, in front of the Bolivian people and the entire world, that a coup d'etat is in progress. In advance, the right had prepared with international support for a coup," he said.
Morales called on the people to "defend democracy." Later in the day, he sought to shore up backing from the country's military at an event in the region of Cochabamba, a key source of political support.
At an evening news conference, government minister Carlos Romero denounced "violent groups," which he said were seeking to confront police with explosives, adding the government would look to hold responsible those promoting the violence.
Mesa, in a video statement on Wednesday, called for "permanent protests" until a second-round vote was confirmed, and said he would present evidence of electoral fraud.
Protesters had demonstrated in La Paz, Santa Cruz and Potosi, with strikes also called in some cities. On Monday night, some electoral offices were set ablaze.
'WHAT'S HE AFRAID OF?'
Morales, the former union leader for coca farmers, has overseen relative stability and growth in one of South America's poorest countries, but angered many by running for a fourth consecutive term in defiance of term limits and a 2016 referendum that voted against him doing so.
"If he wants to be elected cleanly, he should accept a second-round election. What's he afraid of?" asked Maria Luz Vargas, 65, a newspaper seller in La Paz who closed up her kiosk to join the protests.
The official election monitor, the Organization of American States, had called the count into question and cited a "drastic" and inexplicable shift in the vote, which it said hurt voters' confidence in the electoral process.
Antonio Costas, one of the six-member electoral team coordinating the vote, stepped down on Tuesday in protest at the halt to the rapid count, although he told Reuters he had not come under political pressure.
At a meeting on Wednesday, the OAS said Morales could not claim victory and it recommended a second-round vote even if he reached a 10-point lead.
A number of foreign governments, including the United States, Brazil and the European Union, voiced concerns about the integrity of the vote.
Morales called on his supporters, especially in rural areas, to help "defend democracy," adding he was convinced that when the final vote count was announced, he would have a clear first-round win.
"Our triumph has always been with the votes from the rural areas with the votes of the indigenous movement," he said, adding he would respect the final result.
(Reporting by Mitra Taj; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Peter Cooney)
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