Bolivia’s Morales accepts defeat in reelection bid

Bolivia's President Evo Morales waves to his supporters as he leaves the government palace in La Paz on Wednesday.
Bolivia's President Evo Morales waves to his supporters as he leaves the government palace in La Paz on Wednesday. AP

Bolivian President Evo Morales on Wednesday acknowledged a rare defeat at the polls after voters stopped an amendment that would have allowed him to run for a fourth term.

In a press conference, a smiling Morales said he accepted the results but claimed the narrow defeat in Sunday’s referendum proved the power of his decade-old administration.

“Just because ‘no’ won doesn’t mean that life is over for Evo,” said the president, who often refers to himself in third person. “Just because ‘no’ won by a margin of 2 percent doesn’t mean that the fight is over — the battle will be fiercer than ever.”

With virtually all of the ballots counted, the national electoral body said 51.3 percent of voters had chosen to block a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Morales to throw his hat in the ring for the 2019 presidential race and potentially govern through 2025.

Morales blamed the opposition for engaging in mudslinging. In the weeks leading up to the vote, he’d faced accusations that he funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts through a former lover.

There were also allegations that administration figures had embezzled millions from the Fondo Indígena rural development fund.

Reacting to the president’s begrudging concession speech, former presidential candidate and opposition leader Samuel Doria said the administration had to listen to the country.

The administration “asked for it,” he wrote on Twitter. “They called for the referendum to change the [constitution] in their favor. The country said No. Live with it and don’t complain.”

Morales, 56, is already Bolivia’s longest-serving president and, despite the loss, he remains a popular and galvanizing figure. The country’s first indigenous president, he first came to prominence as the head of the coca-grower’s union.

After assuming the presidency in 2006, he’s been credited with helping spread Bolivia’s commodity wealth to long-neglected communities on the back of solid economic growth. But he’s also been accused of cracking down on the press, undermining the judicial system and allowing corruption to flourish.

Morales said he will use the rest of his tenure to make Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest nations, more equitable.

“Except for this referendum, we’ve won all the other electoral processes and battles,” he said. “Now we’ve lost a battle but not the war.”