Bolivia's Evo Morales claims 'coup d'état' underway as election count nears end

Bolivian leader Evo Morales repeats his claim of victory in a Sunday presidential election and accuses the opposition of trying to orchestrate a coup after mass opposition-led protests that claim the counting was rigged.

Election monitor calls for 2nd round of voting, regardless of election outcome

Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales speaks during a press conference on Wednesday in the capital, La Paz. Morales denies that there was election fraud, and accuses the right-wing opposition of attempting a coup. (Javier Mamani/Getty Images)

Bolivian leader Evo Morales on Wednesday repeated his claim of victory in a Sunday presidential election and accused the opposition of trying to orchestrate a coup after mass opposition-led protests that claimed the counting was rigged.

Wednesday's vote count showed Morales with 46.67 per cent of the vote. That puts him 9.81 percentage points ahead of his main rival and former president Carlos Mesa, but still short of the 10-point lead needed to win outright and avoid a riskier second-round runoff. Mesa has secured 36.86 per cent of the vote.

Authorities said the count had been stalled again on Wednesday because attacks on vote-count centres in three regions had prevented the final tabulation of results.

In a fiery early morning speech at the government office in capital city La Paz, leftist 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'état is in progress," he said. "In advance, the right had prepared with international support for a coup."

Morales called on the people to "defend democracy" in the speech. 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.

His rival, 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.

Supporters of Morales and his rival presidential candidate, Carlos Mesa, clash over disputed poll results on Wednesday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Mesa is calling for opposition protests to continue until there is a second vote. (Daniel Walker/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters, angry at what they saw as an attempt by Morales to rig the vote, had protested en masse in La Paz, outside where the electoral board was processing the last remaining ballots with the president edging toward outright victory.

Unrest in the country began after an official quick vote count was disrupted by a near 24-hour halt late on Sunday, when Morales claimed his party would win outright despite initial numbers showing the two main rivals heading to a second round.

'What's he afraid of?'

The tensions mark the most severe challenge to Morales's nearly 14-year rule of the landlocked nation, since he came to power in 2006 as the country's first Indigenous leader.

The former union leader for coca farmers has overseen relative stability and growth, 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 early on Tuesday to join the protests.

The official election monitor, the Organization of American States (OAS), called the count into question and cited a "drastic" and inexplicable shift in the vote, which hurt voters' confidence in the electoral process.

At a meeting held on Wednesday to discuss issues in Bolivia, the OAS said Morales could not claim victory and that it recommended that even if he were to reach a 10-point lead that the country should still hold a second-round vote.

Mesa gestures during a protest near the national electoral computing centre in La Paz on Tuesday. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

A number of foreign governments, including the United States, Brazil and the European Union, voiced concerns about the integrity of the vote.

Michael G. Kozak, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, warned Wednesday that Bolivian authorities will be held accountable if the process isn't fair.

"I think you will see pretty strong response from the whole hemisphere, not just the U.S.," Kozak said during a House hearing.

In Caracas, Venezuela's socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, voiced support for his ally, Morales.

"It is a coup d'état foretold, sung — and, one can say, defeated," he said.

The crisis was aggravated by the resignation of Bolivia's electoral council vice-president, Antonio Costas, who said he disagreed with the decision to interrupt transmission of the vote count.

On Tuesday, the Andean nation saw a second night of violent protests in several cities. Then, on Wednesday, a strike that mostly affected transportation erupted in Santa Cruz, the most populous eastern region and an opposition stronghold, while Morales supporters clashed with his foes in one of the city's slums.

Protesters in other regions announced that they would join to demand respect for the vote.

Morales, often known just as Evo, 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.

With files from The Associated Press