By Vivian Sequera and Daniel Ramos
LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians banged on pots and pans from windows and rooftops in the capital La Paz on Friday, protesting a controversial election count handing President Evo Morales a fourth consecutive term that would extend his rule to nearly two decades.
Morales, 59, who swept to power in 2006 as the country’s first indigenous leader, hailed the official result of Sunday’s vote as another historic triumph for his leftist movement and accused the opposition, without evidence, of trying to stage a coup d’etat with foreign backing.
Morales faced a fifth day of street protests in La Paz and other cities that begun after an official quick count of votes was suddenly suspended on Sunday when it revealed Morales heading to a riskier run-off election against rival Carlos Mesa.
A confident Morales said then his socialist party MAS would get an outright win as rural votes trickled in.
The tabulation of ballots at 100% on Friday confirmed his prediction, giving him a 10.57-point lead over Mesa, less than a point above what he needed to avoid a second-round vote.
Election monitors, the opposition and some foreign governments criticized the election for lacking transparency.
The European Union, the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia called for Bolivia to convene a second-round vote to ease the unrest.
Brazil’s foreign ministry said it would not recognize Morales’ win while an audit of the vote count by the regional group Organization of American States (OAS) was still pending.
The only countries that have congratulated Morales on his win were Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico.
After nightfall, Bolivians banged on pots and pans in a traditional form of protest. Earlier, roads were blocked and demonstrators surrounded the headquarters of the country’s electoral board, guarded by rows of police in anti-riot gear.
“Evo Morales had an acceptable administration,” said protester Jose Callisaya, 38. But “it’s healthy in a democracy to change leaders.”
Mesa, a former president who leads the Citizen Community party, has called for indefinite protests until a second-round vote is convened, which Morales has ruled out as unconstitutional.
“The government is despising the popular vote,” Mesa told local television channel Unitel on Friday.
A former union leader for coca farmers, Morales has overseen steady growth and relative stability in one of South America’s poorest countries and is now the region’s longest-serving president. He has accused the opposition of trying to stir up unrest and denied charges of vote-rigging.
Officials and diplomats raised concerns the conflict could hit Bolivia’s ties with global trade partners and hurt an economy already straining under declining gas exports.
The country’s electoral board denied any political interference in its count and invited anyone to examine voting sheets posted on its website.
Mesa’s campaign has said it had found irregularities on the website that swung some 100,000 votes in favor of Morales.
Bolivia’s electoral system was “absolutely transparent,” said Idelfonso Mamani, one of the five remaining members of the board following the resignation of its vice president in protest this week. “We have the means to prove the results,” he said.
The office of the country’s ombudsman, which monitors conflicts, said 57 people have been arrested and 29 people wounded in this week’s protests. Prosecutor Juan Lanchipa said 40 people have been investigated for vandalism.
Interior Minister Carlos Romero called for calm. “There are people out for blood…to say there’s a dictatorship here.”
The OAS, a regional group that sent an observer mission to Bolivia, has said it had “serious doubts” about the election and earlier this week accepted an invitation by Morales’ government to audit it to clear them up. It was unclear when the audit would begin.
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Daniel Ramos. Writing By Mitra Taj. Editing by Adam Jourdan, Alistair Bell and Lincoln Feast.)