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Bolivian election rivals end day of protests with rallies, injuries

Bolivia has been convulsed by protests since 20 October when its Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) abruptly suspended the publication of results from an electronic count that eventually gave Morales a fourth term, leading to accusations of fraud.

Firefighters extinguish a fire set at the Departmental Electoral Court during protests following the election results, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on 23 October 2019. Bolivia's opposition launched a general strike on Wednesday amid protests and disturbances over disputed election results. Picture: AFP

LA PAZ - Supporters and opponents of Bolivian President Evo Morales both ended a day of protests with large rallies on Monday, as Morales’ election rival Carlos Mesa assured backers he was headed to either prison or the presidency.

Bolivia has been convulsed by protests since 20 October when its Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) abruptly suspended the publication of results from an electronic count that eventually gave Morales a fourth term, leading to accusations of fraud.

With 84% of votes counted, polling showed Morales was likely headed to a runoff with Mesa, his chief rival and a former president. However, when reporting of the count resumed after a pause of nearly 24 hours, it showed Morales had pulled off a razor-thin victory.

The final, legally binding vote tally gave him 47.08% of votes to Mesa’s 36.51%, less than a percentage point more than the 10-point lead needed to avoid a runoff and giving him another five-year term.

Five protesters in industrial Santa Cruz, where people have been on strike since last Wednesday, suffered gunshot wounds. Police said they were seeking one man they believe to have caused the injuries.

Both Morales, who has been in office nearly 14 years and is Latin America’s longest-serving leader, and Mesa spoke to seas of flag-waving supporters at rallies late on Monday, each accusing the other of inciting violence.

Morales, speaking in El Alto outside the capital, repeated his declaration of victory, while Mesa doubled down on accusations of fraud in front of a crowd in southern La Paz.

“They accuse me of generating violence, lying shamelessly,” Mesa said to applause. “I’m here - I’ll go to prison or to the presidency!”

“We have decided to confront the authoritarianism, on the way to a dictatorship, the authoritarianism that seeks to rob us of an election,” he said.

Mesa told Reuters in an interview earlier on Monday strikers would not accept negotiations to end protests and that Morales wanted to stay in power indefinitely, something the president had previously denied.

Morales lamented at his rally that “some groups do not recognize the triumph of the Bolivian people. They aren’t the majority, they are small groups.”

“Some ask for strikes until Evo goes. Some say new elections, others a second round ... they need to understand that we won in the first round,” he said.

The opposition has limited time to take down barricades in the capital before the president’s supporters do, lawmaker Freddy Mamani said at Morales’ rally.

Morales reiterated a promise his government made at the weekend to have the Organization of American States audit the election.

Morales, 60, has said he would go to the second round of voting if irregularities were found, but also that rural supporters could put cities under siege. The TSE and Morales deny any election fraud.

Strikers in the capital, La Paz, and other cities blocked roads and schools and shops were closed as protesters from opposing sides yelled and pushed each other in skirmishes on otherwise empty streets.

The opposition-controlled mayor’s office in La Paz, which has a million inhabitants, was also shut.

Residents created roadblocks using cars, wooden planks, rope and even dumpsters in both the middle-class south and working-class north of the city, according to Reuters witnesses.

“We are demanding that our vote be respected,” said protester Marta Colque, 32, who works at a daycare centre, adding Morales wanted to “stay forever.”

Morales supporters in Santa Cruz used rocks and sticks to confront police and opposition protesters amid clouds of tear gas.