Bolivia leader Morales calls for new elections amid fraud findings and protests

Facing growing opposition and under pressure to resign — including from his own military — Bolivian President Evo Morales on Sunday announced that the country will hold new presidential elections.

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The decision came just hours after a team of Organization of American States’ auditors said a controversial Oct. 20 presidential vote — that purportedly handed Morales an unprecedented fourth term — was “gravely” flawed and should be annulled.

In a series of tweets, Morales asked congress to appoint new members of the National Electoral Council so that a new election could be held.

“By calling for new national elections, we guarantee that the people will have a free, democratic and peaceful vote to choose their new officials and new political actors,” he said.

The announcement marked an abrupt change for Morales, 60, who has maintained that he won last month’s election outright and had been accusing protesters and his critics of being “fascist coup mongers.”

But the calls for a new election didn’t appease those calling for Morales’ ouster.

In a national address Sunday afternoon, the head of the Armed Forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, said Morales should step down in the name of “peace” and “stability” and “for the good of our Bolivia.”

Earlier in the day, opposition candidate Carlos Mesa said Morales and his vice president should resign immediately and shouldn’t be allowed to run in a new election because they had committed “enormous fraud.”

The U.S. State Department also joined in the calls.

“We support the call for new elections and a credible, representative Electoral Supreme Court (TSE),” Michael Kozak, the acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on Twitter. “All those implicated in the flawed process should step down.”

Despite the growing pressure, Morales was defiant, telling local media that his term runs through Jan. 21, 2020, “and anyone who suggests [otherwise] is promoting a coup.”

Even so, there were rumors on social media that Morales may have left the country.

Morales’ dramatic election announcement came just hours after the OAS released a 13-page report that found serious flaws with the electoral process.

“In the four categories that were reviewed (technology, chain of custody, integrity of the ballots and statistical projections) we have found irregularities that run from very serious to suspicious,” the OAS said.

The OAS General Secretary’s office went further, saying the vote was irredeemably flawed and that “the first round of elections should be held again as soon as there are enough guarantees in place.”

Phantom Server

One of the core problems was the online system that tallied and reported votes. On election night, with 83 percent of the vote counted, the system showed Morales was in the lead but not by enough to avoid a runoff against Mesa. However, the vote-counting platform went off-line for 23 hours, and when it was restored, Morales’ lead had grown, assuring him a first-round victory.

The OAS said electoral authorities couldn’t explain the interruption. In addition, auditors found that a previously unreported computer server, named B020, began processing the results when the system came back online.

“The server was not registered on any of the reports given to us by the [electoral] tribunal and all of the actors omitted its existence until it was detected by OAS auditors,” the report found.

Winning in the first round was critical for Morales, as analysts had said that he’d likely lose a runoff facing an opposition united behind Mesa.

Bolivia has been gripped by violent protests and uncertainty ever since the elections.

On Saturday, Morales said that the home of his sister and two ruling-party governors had been burned. In addition, some police outposts have said with the protesters and the military had previously announced that it would not move against demonstrators. On Sunday, two members of Morales’ cabinet resigned Sunday, saying they were stepping down to help bring peace to the country.

Morales had called the opposition to find a negotiated exit to the crisis, but it may be too little too late.

On Sunday, he reiterated his calls for calm.

“I’m asking the Bolivian people to guarantee peace and end the violence for the good of everyone,” he said. “We Bolivian brothers cannot fight each other.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jim Wyss covers Latin America for the Miami Herald and was part of the team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its work on the “Panama Papers.” He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2005.