The Bolivian electoral commission had shown Morales beating his closest challenger by just over 10 percent, the margin required to avoid a runoff. Had the vote gone to a second round, Morales and his socialists would likely have faced a more united opposition with a good shot at unseating him.
At a hastily arranged news conference in La Paz, Morales said Sunday he would accept the recommendation of the OAS — a Washington-based multilateral institution made up of Western Hemisphere nations — and replace the electoral commission, which the organization accused of overseeing significant “irregularities.”
“I have decided to convene new national elections so that, through the vote, the Bolivian people will be allowed to democratically elect their new authorities,” Morales said.
Former president Carlos Mesa, who finished second to Morales in the vote last month, said Morales shouldn’t be a candidate in the new elections because he is “responsible for this fraud that caused this social convulsion.”
Morales, asked by local reporters whether he planned to run, didn’t respond.
“For the moment, candidacies should be secondary,” he said. “The priority is to pacify Bolivia, to go to a dialogue, and to agree on how to change the Supreme Electoral Tribunal working with the Legislative Assembly.”
But he said he would not resign: “I have a constitutional role and my period ends on January 21 next year.”
The announcement of new elections came after police guards at the presidential palace in La Paz abandoned their posts on Saturday, part of a broader strike in which police said they would not be used as political tools of the government. The strike threatened to undermine Morales’s grip on power.
Strikes, protests and roadblocks have paralyzed South America’s poorest nation. In the town of Vinto late last week, opposition protesters abducted the socialist mayor, dragged her through the streets, doused her with red paint and forcibly cut her hair.
As protests continued, Morales denounced the “coup” against him. He called for a dialogue with the main political opposition parties — a call they promptly rejected.
“I have nothing to negotiate with Evo Morales,” Mesa tweeted Saturday. “He has lost, lamentably, his link with reality.”
Yet his strongest blow came from outside Bolivia — in the form of the OAS audit, which Morales and his Movement for Socialism had pledged to honor. In its preliminary report, issued Sunday, the organization said, “The manipulations to the computer system are of such magnitude that they must be deeply investigated by the Bolivian state to get to the bottom of and assign responsibility in this serious case.”
OAS auditors said the voting transmission system was not “100% monitored” or under the control of the appropriate technician. Information was at one point redirected, thus “it is not possible to have certainty about the . . . results.”
The OAS also said that “good practices” were not applied to the official vote counting because the system “permitted someone to take control” of parts of the process that were supposed to be secure. The integrity of the software was not respected, auditors said; at one point, they said, the system was frozen and fixed in a manner that violated the “essential principles of security.”
The OAS concluded that 78 of 333 evaluated vote counts from polling stations showed irregularities and manipulation. The last 5 percent of the vote counting was especially “unusual,” auditors said, in that it showed a significant increase for Morales and a sharp decrease for Mesa.
“In some cases we verified that all the ballots at one [polling station] had been completed by the same person,” the OAS wrote. “In some cases we confirmed that that person was a representative of [Morales’s Movement for Socialism]. . . . We found, also, many ballots in which the ruling party obtained a 100% of the votes.”
In a separate statement, the OAS said, “The first round of the elections held on October 20 must be annulled and the electoral process must begin again, with the first round taking place as soon as there are new conditions that give new guarantees for it to take place, including a newly composed electoral body.”
In 2016, he gambled on a national referendum that would have allowed him to sidestep term limits and seek a fourth term. He narrowly lost that vote, amid a scandal over allegedly fathering a child out of wedlock — but then secured a court ruling that enabled him to run again.
His opponents call that an abuse of power — one that fits a pattern that they say has also included heavy-handedness with anti-development protesters, the press and political opponents.