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Bolivian leader calls protests over disputed election results a "coup"

APTOPIX Bolivia Elections
Anti-government protesters march against early presidential election results in La Paz, Bolivia, Tuesday, October 22, 2019. AP

La Paz, Bolivia — Bolivia's opposition launched a general strike Wednesday over disputed election results suggesting another term for President Evo Morales, who likened the stoppage to a right wing coup.

Speaking to reporters, Morales also said he will take measures to "defend" democracy and is confident he will be declared the winner of Sunday's election with no need for a runoff.

Morales, a former coca farmer and Latin America's longest serving leader, is seeking a fourth straight term. The opposition has reported fraud in the counting of votes from the weekend election.

Bolivia's President and presidential candidate Evo Morales speaks during a press conference at the Casa Grande del Pueblo (Great House of the People) in La Paz, on October 23, 2019. Getty

"A coup is under way. I want the people of Bolivia to know. Until now, humbly, we have put up with it in order to avoid violence and we have not entered into confrontation," Morales said in his first public remarks since the election, referring to the strike and violent anti-government protests that broke out after the election.

Partial results released Sunday night suggested Morales would face off in a second round with his main rival, the centrist Carlos Mesa.But things changed dramatically Monday when the electoral commission released new results that practically gave the win to Morales, drawing opposition complaints of fraud and triggering rioting in some cities.

Mobs torched electoral offices in Sucre and Potosi, while rival supporters clashed in the capital La Paz. Monitors from the Organization of American States said they, too, had seen a "drastic and hard to explain change" in the trend of the initial results.

As of early Wednesday, with more than 95% of the vote counted, Morales had 46.4% compared to 37% for Mesa, just shy of the 10 point lead necessary to avoid a runoff, according to the commission. 

Representatives of civil society organizations from Bolivia's six regions backed a call to extend a strike originally set for Tuesday in the country's largest city Santa Cruz. The general strike went into effect at midnight Tuesday and will "continue until democracy and the will of the citizens are respected," the organizations said.

Meanwhile, an umbrella organization of pro-Morales labor and farmers' unions, CONALCAM, called on its members to defend the official results.

People hold a protest against the Departmental Electoral Court, following the election results, in Sucre, Bolivia on October 22, 2019. Reuters

"We will go out on the streets and on the roads to firmly defend democracy and the votes of Bolivians," said the leader of the main union, Juan Carlos Guarachi, after a meeting with Morales.

Long lines formed at gas stations Tuesday amid fears of shortages. Health workers, on strike for the past month, demonstrated outside the electoral authority headquarters Tuesday.

Mesa, who served as president from 2001 to 2005, accused Morales of colluding with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to tweak results and avoid a run-off. Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia also voiced concern.

Morales is seeking another term amid controversy. He obtained Constitutional Court permission in 2017 to run again despite a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians said no to letting him do so.

The former coca farmer and leftist union leader has led the poor but resource-rich Latin American country for the past 13 years, though his popularity has waned amid allegations of corruption and authoritarianism. He has led the country since taking office in 2006, when he became its first indigenous president. A new mandate would keep him in power until 2025.

As leader of his Movement for Socialism Party, Morales points to a decade of economic stability and considerable industrialization as his achievements, while insisting he has brought "dignity" to Bolivia's indigenous population, the largest in Latin America.

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