LA PAZ (Reuters) – Protesters blocked roads and shopowners kept their stores shut in La Paz on Monday morning as Bolivians took to the streets in a strike called by the opposition to protest what they say was fraud at elections giving President Evo Morales a fourth term.
The country has been convulsed by protests since October 20, when its Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) abruptly suspended the publication of results from an electronic count.
With 84% of votes counted, polling showed Morales was likely headed to a run-off with chief rival and ex-president Carlos Mesa. But when reporting of the count resumed after a nearly 24-hour pause, Morales had pulled off a razor-thin victory.
The final, legally-binding vote tally gave him 47.08% of votes to Mesa’s 35.51%, less than a percentage point over the 10-point lead needed to avoid a run-off and giving him another five-year term.
“Morales made a mistake,” Mesa told protesters on Sunday, adding that discontent with the leftist president has been fermenting since voters rejected his attempt to lift term limits in 2016.
A court ruling later gave Morales, who has been in office nearly 14 years and is Latin America’s longest-serving head of state, the green light to run once again.
The streets of La Paz, which has a million residents, were half-empty on Monday morning, with many shops and schools shuttered. The opposition-controlled mayor’s office was also closed.
Road blockades mounted by residents using cars, wood planks, rope and even dumpsters were visible 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 Marta Colque, 32, who works at a daycare centre.
Morales wants to “stay forever”, Colque said, as she stood at a blockade in the city centre.
Mesa is “a bad loser, a man who incites violence” despite his “moral defeat” in the elections, Vice President Alvaro Garcia told journalists on Monday.
The government is calling for people to go about their daily activities as normal, Garcia added, even as miners who back Morales gathered to counter-protest in La Paz.
People in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s industrial centre, have been on strike since Wednesday of last week.
The Bolivian government said on Sunday it planned to agree a deal with the Organization of American States within days to audit the election.
Morales, 60, has said he will go to a second round if irregularities are found, but also that rural supporters could put cities under siege if they keep protesting his re-election. The TSE and Morales deny any election fraud.
Morales is set to hold an event in El Alto, north of La Paz, later on Monday.
“The speed with which this is all happening is striking,” said politics professor Marcelo Arequipa, of San Pablo Catholic University.
While on Friday protesters called for a second round, now some are asking for the vote to be annulled, Arequipa said.
“’(Morales) must go’ may come next.”
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Daniel Ramos, Monica Machicao and Sergio Limachi in La Paz, writing by Vivian Sequera and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Alistair Bell)