Protests in Bolivia as Arce looks set for presidential poll win

Protests in Bolivia as Arce looks set for presidential poll win

Dozens protest at the headquarters of the Electoral Tribunal in the central city of Cochabamba
Dozens protest at the headquarters of the Electoral Tribunal in the central city of Cochabamba

LA PAZ - Hundreds of Bolivians protested Tuesday against the impending election win of Luis Arce, as the slow official count appeared set to confirm the leftist as their next president.

Authoritative exit polls already suggested Arce, a 57-year-old economist from the Movement for Socialism (MAS) and heir to former president Evo Morales, had beaten centrist former leader Carlos Mesa in Sunday's polls -- by a wide enough margin to avoid a second-round runoff.

And at about 3:00 am local time (0700 GMT) on Wednesday, with 86 percent of ballots scrutinized, the official count showed Arce had 54 percent, followed by Carlos Mesa on 29.5 percent. Conservative Luis Fernando Camacho was in third place with 14.4 percent.

The usual rapid count had been abandoned after allegations of irregularities last year that led to Morales' November resignation after 14 years in power.

"It's a fraud, as Evo Morales has always done," Yeni, a participant in the protest held in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's richest city and a Camacho stronghold, told AFP.

Arce's victory "is like a slap in the face," said another protester, Yasmani Acosta.

Dozens also protested at the headquarters of the Electoral Tribunal in the central city of Cochabamba, where votes were being counted. Demonstrators there denounced a "fraud."

Mesa has conceded defeat, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has hailed "peaceful elections", calling on all Bolivian politicians to work for "national reconciliation."

Camacho, for his part, expressed doubts about the outcome. "We are living in moments of uncertainty created by a very poor administration of the electoral process," he said on social media.

- Morales in exile -

Arce's triumph surprised many because polls had predicted a runoff between him and Mesa.

By Wednesday's early hours, he was winning in six of the nine departments of the country, in three of them by more than 60 percent: Cochabamba, a MAS stronghold; Oruro, where Morales was born; and La Paz, the administrative capital.

The Bolivian Constitution declares the candidate who obtains an absolute majority or 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point advantage over their nearest challenger as the winner in the first round. Otherwise, there must be a second round.

The election, twice postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, was the first in 20 years not to feature Morales, the country's first-ever indigenous leader.

It came a year after he won an unconstitutional fourth term in an election that sparked weeks of protests, leaving 36 dead and 800 injured.

The rapid count in 2019 suggested there would be no outright winner, but after it was inexplicably frozen for 24 hours, Morales had jumped into a winning lead over Mesa once the live count resumed.

Morales resigned and fled into exile.

A later audit by the Organization of American States found clear evidence of fraud.

An interim administration was set up, led by a right-wing senator, Jeanine Anez. She withdrew her candidacy for the presidential election shortly before the election.

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