The resignation was an ignominious ending to a 13 – year tenure in which Bolivia’s first indigenous president fought poverty and transformed cities with state investment even as criticism of his authoritarian tendencies rose. But, ultimately, the 60 – year old socialist found himself isolated – the heads of the armed forces and national police both called on Morales to step down, and the country main labor union asked him to resign to help calm a nation rapidly plunging into mob rule.
Morales and his senior officials denounced the pressure as an effective coup orchestrated by his right-wing challenger, former president Carlos Mesa, and other opposition leaders, including Luis Fernando Camacho. Protesters ransacked and burned the homes of senior members of Morales’s Movement for Socialism party, and, in at least one instance, kidnapped a relative. The restive Sunday capped three weeks of violence that began with the torching of election centers by right-wing supporters infuriated by what they saw as a power grab by Morales.
“We resign because I don’t want to see any more families attacked by instruction of Mesa and Camacho, ”Morales said. “On October 21, the coup started with the fires lighted at electoral tribunals and ballots burned. We are resigning, and this is not a betrayal to social movements. The fight continues. We are the people, and thanks to this political union, we have freed Bolivia. We leave this homeland freed. ”
“ Mesa and Camacho have achieved their objective, ”Morales added. “Now stop burning the houses of my brothers and sisters.”
Morales’s resignation came on a day in which several of his socialist ministers and lawmakers abandoned their jobs as tensions in South America’s poorest nation soared. The leader of the chamber of deputies, Movement for Socialism member Victor Borda, stepped down after his home in the mountain city of Potosí was set ablaze and his brother was taken hostage by protesters.
The right, meanwhile, portrayed Morales’s forced resignation as a liberation of the nation – and the only way to restore democracy.
“To Bolivia, its people, the young, the women, to the heroism of peaceful resistance. I will never forget this unique day, ”Mesa said in a tweet. “The end of tyranny. I’m grateful to the Bolivian people for this historic lesson. Long live Bolivia! ”
Tensions spilled over after the release of a vote audit by the Organization of American States, which found that the election was marked by profound irregularities.
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 probably 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 that 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.
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 at the time that he would not resign: “I have a constitutional role and my period ends on January 21 next year. ”
Yet Morales’s plans were the subject of intense speculation throughout the day as his grip on power appeared to be failing. In a news conference Sunday afternoon, Williams Kaliman, head of the armed forces, “suggested” that Morales step aside. That announcement came a day after Kaliman warned that the military would not be deployed against the protesters.
Gen. Vladimir Calderón, head of the national police, also asked for Morales’s resignation to “pacify the nation in this difficult times.”
Afterward, Morales was filmed exiting the presidential plane in Chimoré, a town in the Bolivian department of Cochabamba.
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.