LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivian President Evo Morales early Thursday edged toward the threshold he needs for an outright victory in his re-election bid after accusing his opponents of trying to stage a coup against him amid protests over the disputed and slow-moving vote count.
While votes remained to be counted, the leftist leader stood at the exact 10% margin over his closest rival required to avoid a runoff ballot in December, in which he could risk being defeated by a united opposition in his bid for a fourth consecutive term.
As the clock ticked into a new day, the official vote count moved him to a 10-point lead, with just under 2% of the votes from the Sunday election still to be counted. He led former President Carlos Mesa by 46.76% to 36.76%.
Morales' percentage crept up Wednesday although the number of votes counted had barely advanced since midafternoon, when authorities said the process had been hampered because of attacks on vote-counting centers in three regions.
Mesa warned of fraud and international vote monitors expressed concern at an earlier unexplained daylong gap in reporting results before a sudden spurt in Morales’ vote percentage. Opposition backers continued to stage rowdy protests since the vote, while Morales’ backers staged a march in the capital to support the president.
Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president and the region's longest-ruling leader, repeated his claim that he won outright and said his opponents were conspiring to oust him.
"I want to denounce to the people and the world that a coup d’etat is underway," Morales said at a news conference at which he did not take any questions. "The right wing has prepared it with international support."
Morales did not specify where the alleged international support for the coup is coming from, but he regularly rails against U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
He cited protesters’ burning of electoral offices in two cities where votes are being tallied as proof of the coup. Protesters also burned ballots in a third city.
"We are waiting for a report from the Electoral Tribunal, although the TREP (a quick count) has already said that we won," Morales said.
The tribunal's quick count webpage, whose results are not binding, showed Morales with a 10.1% lead over Mesa, with about 96% of polling place counts verified Wednesday.
"If there is anyone who breaks the constitutional order it is Evo Morales," Mesa said later in the day. "It's clear that there's a gigantic fraud going on."
Opposition leaders have called on Bolivians to defend "the citizen vote and democracy" in the streets against suspicions of fraud by Morales's party.
Suspicions of electoral fraud rose when officials abruptly stopped releasing results from the quick count of votes hours after the polls closed Sunday with Morales topping the eight other candidates, but falling several percentage points short of the percentage needed to avoid the first runoff in his nearly 14 years in power.
Yet the president claimed an outright victory late Sunday, telling supporters that the votes still to be counted — largely from rural areas where he is most popular — would be enough to give him outright victory.
Twenty-four hours later, the body suddenly released an updated figure, with 95% of votes counted, showing Morales just 0.7% short of the 10% advantage needed to avoid a runoff.
That set off an uproar among the opposition and expressions of concern by international monitors.
The observer mission of the Organization of American States asked for explanations and the European Union and the U.N. expressed concern about the electoral process and called for calm. The United States and Brazil, among others, also expressed concerns.
Michael G. Kozak, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, warned Wednesday that Bolivian authorities will be held accountable if the process isn't fair.
"I think you will see pretty strong response from the whole hemisphere, not just the U.S.," Kozak said during a House hearing.
In Caracas, Venezuela's socialist President Nicolás Maduro voiced support for his ally Morales.
"It is a coup d’etat foretold, sung and, one can say, defeated," he said.
The crisis was aggravated by the resignation of the vice president of the electoral council, Antonio Costas, who said he disagreed with the decision to interrupt transmission of the vote count.
On Tuesday, the Andean nation saw a second night of violent protests in several cities. Then Wednesday, a strike that mostly affected transportation erupted in Santa Cruz, the most populous eastern region and an opposition stronghold, while Morales supporters clashed with his foes in one of the city's slums.
Protesters in other regions announced that they would join to demand respect for the vote.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.