Paola Flores and Carlos Valdez
LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Buckling under mounting pressure, Bolivian President Evo Morales called for a new election on Sunday after his claim to have won a fourth term triggered suspicions of fraud and set off deadly protests.
South America's longest-serving leader made the announcement after a preliminary report by the Organization of American States found a "heap of observed irregularities" in the Oct. 20 presidential contest and said a new vote should be held.
Without mentioning the Organization of American States report, Morales said he would replace the country's electoral body and urged all political parties and all sectors to help bring peace to the Andean nation after protests in which three people have been killed and hundreds injured.
"We all have to pacify Bolivia," said the socialist leader, who is facing the biggest crisis of his nearly 14 years in power.
Morales, 60, a native Aymara from Bolivia's highlands, became the country' first Indigenous president in 2006 and easily won two more elections amid a commodities-fed economic boom in South America's poorest country. He paved roads, sent Bolivia's first satellite into space and curbed inflation.
But many who were once excited by his fairy-tale rise have grown wary of his reluctance to leave power.
He ran for a fourth term after refusing to abide by the results of a referendum that upheld term limits for the president. He was able to run because Bolivia's constitutional court ruled term limits violated his political rights.
After the Oct. 20 vote, Morales declared himself the outright winner even before official results indicated he obtained just enough support to avoid a runoff with opposition leader and former President Carlos Mesa. But a 24-hour lapse in releasing vote results raised suspicions among the opposition of vote-rigging.
Mesa said that the Organization of American States report showed "monstrous fraud."
"Morales can't be a candidate in new elections," said Mesa, a 66-year-old historian who stepped down as president in 2005 amid an outbreak of demonstrations led by Morales, then the leader of a coca growers union.
The Organization of American States sent a 30-person team to conduct what it called a binding audit of the election. Its preliminary recommendations included holding new elections with a new electoral tribunal.
"The process was hard-fought and the security standards have not been respected," the Organization of American States said in a statement released by its president, Luis Almagro, on Twitter.
"Mindful of the heap of observed irregularities, it's not possible to guarantee the integrity of the numbers and give certainty of the results."
Pressure increased on Morales on Saturday when police guards outside Bolivia's presidential palace abandoned their posts. Morales was not at the palace at the time.
Officers also climbed onto the roof of a nearby police station, holding national flags and signs proclaiming, "The Police with the People." Police retreated to their barracks in at least three cities.
Morales has repeatedly accused the opposition of trying to stage a coup.
Bolivia's Defense Minister Javier Zabaleta played down the police protests, saying a "police mutiny occurred in a few regions," while Gen. Williams Kaliman, the military chief, said Saturday that the armed forces had no plans to intervene.
"We'll never confront the people among whom we live," Kaliman said. "This is a political problem, and it should be resolved within that realm."