By Daniel Ramos
LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivian protests sparked by the contentious election victory last month of President Evo Morales entered their third week on Monday, with the long-standing leader facing rising pressure from an ultimatum by opposition groups to step down.
Morales, who came to power in 2006 and has become an iconic figure in the landlocked South American nation, has defended his election win and has backed an international audit of the result to resolve the crisis.
Amid the political turmoil, a helicopter carrying Morales made an emergency landing due to a mechanical malfunction on takeoff from the town of Colquiri, south of La Paz, the air force said. No injuries were reported. Video of the incident spread on social media.
Bolivia’s opposition, made up of runner-up Carlos Mesa’s party as well as increasingly prominent civic organizations, ramped up calls to remove the Morales completely, with one popular civic leader setting a deadline on Monday night.
“Today is a good day to recover democracy. 10 hours…” Luis Fernando Camacho, the head of a civic group in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, wrote on Twitter early on Monday, after setting a 48-hour deadline for Morales that expires at 7 p.m. (2300 GMT).
It was unclear what exactly would happen at that deadline, though Camacho – who has gained widespread popular support around the country – promised “measures that would give us the freedom of an entire nation within a matter of days.”
Mesa, who came second in the Oct. 20 election, slammed Morales’ candidacy as illegal and on Sunday proposed new elections. He has maintained allegations of electoral fraud.
Morales won the vote with just over a 10-point lead, which gave him an outright win, but the victory was marred by a near 24-hour halt to the count, which when resumed showed a sharp and unexplained shift in favour of Morales.
That sparked fierce protests, with protesters clashing with police, teargas on the streets and roadblocks and strikes in many cities around the country. There have been a small number of fatalities in the clashes.
The Organization of American States (OAS), the formal monitor of the election, is now carrying out an audit of the count, expected to be completed around the middle of the month. It had raised concerns after the vote count was halted.
Morales, once a coca farmer union leader who often goes just as “Evo”, has defended his election win and pointed to years of relative stability and growth under his rule. He has tied his chances to the “binding” OAS audit.
The Senate leader, Adriana Salvatierra, said that Morales was calling for peace and the government would not bow to the ultimatum from Camacho’s civic group. “We will not fall under pressure, but we will wait for the end of the audit,” he said.
Edwin Herrera, a spokesman for Mesa’s Citizen Community (CC) party, pointed to the weeks of blockades, mobilizations and marches, which he said were “never before seen in the political history of our country.” He called for Morales to step down or put the country’s democracy at risk.
Morales, nearing 14 years in power, had already sparked ire amongst some Bolivians before the election when he decided to run for a fourth term in defiance of term limits and a referendum in 2016 that voted against him doing so.
The election standoff has strained the gas-producing and farming nation, with some growing worried that the way out of the crisis appears to be getting less clear.
“Luis Fernando Camacho wants to get Evo out the window so that he can climb the other window,” one local journalist wrote on Twitter. “He doesn’t understand there are doors that must be opened and processes followed to ensure democratic continuity.”
(Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Adam JourdanEditing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)