LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivian voters have handed Evo Morales his first electoral defeat as president, rejecting by a slim margin a constitutional amendment that would have let him run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019.
After the announcement by electoral officials Tuesday night, celebrants poured into the streets in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, where opposition to Morales is strong. But fireworks also sounded in La Paz, where there is weariness of corruption in the governing party.
The ballot measure in Sunday’s referendum was voted down 51 percent to 49 percent, with 99.5 percent of the ballots counted, a margin of just over 150,000 votes. The outcome also blocks Vice President Alvaro Garcia from running again.
Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and he helped lift millions out of poverty since first taking office a decade ago by more equitably distributing natural gas revenues, spurring the creation of an indigenous middle class.
But Bolivians have been losing patience with his now-entrenched Movement Toward Socialism.
The vote also closely followed a revelation that Morales may have been personally involved in influence-peddling.
“Evo’s traditional opposition among the affluent and middle class was joined by a wide swath of voters who have long been a part of his political support,” said Jim Shultz, executive director of the left-leaning Democracy Center political advocacy group.
“Their turnaround isn’t about moving rightward,” but rather a rejection of corruption that reflects a belief “that 20 years is too long for one person to be president,” he added.
Until Sunday’s ballot, Morales had prevailed in nationwide elections, including a 2009 rewrite of the constitution, with an average 61.5 percent of the vote.
The margin of defeat coincided almost exactly with two unofficial “quick count” samples announced Sunday by polling firms.
The result proved allegations of vote fraud by some members of the opposition to be unfounded, said Jose Luis Exeni, a member of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The vote count had been unusually slow and the vice president had said earlier Tuesday that the outcome would be a “cliff-hanger.”
He claimed a right-wing conspiracy was “trying to make disappear by sleight of hand the rural vote that favors Morales,” but provided no evidence to back the claim.
Organization of American States observers reported no evidence of fraud, and the delegation leader, former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, left Bolivia on Tuesday.
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