Bolivia split as opposition calls for Morales to step down, rejects audit

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s opposition is hardening its stance in street protests against President Evo Morales, calling for the longtime leftist leader to step down and rejecting an international audit of the divisive election that handed him a fourth term.

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Morales, in power for nearly 14 years, won the Oct. 20 election by just more than the 10-point margin needed for outright victory. But his win was mired in controversy after the vote count was halted for a day when the vote was seemingly headed for a run-off.

When the count restarted after an outcry from the opposition, overseas governments and election monitors, there was a sharp swing in Morales’ favor, giving him just enough votes to avoid a riskier second round.

Supporters of Morales and runner-up Carlos Mesa have clashed in street protests. Two people were killed in unrest on Wednesday in eastern Bishop Santistevan province, the first casualties in a tense standoff that has now been running for almost a fortnight.

Under pressure, the government gave the go-ahead for an audit of the vote by the Organization of American States (OAS), an official monitor of the election. Its audit started on Thursday and should take around two weeks.

The opposition, however, is now calling for more, with Mesa sticking by allegations of electoral fraud.

People just want “another election without Evo Morales,” Francisco Dorado, deputy governor of Bishop Santistevan province, told Reuters on Thursday.

Morales, a 60-year-old former union leader for coca farmers, says he won the election cleanly. Foreign Minister Diego Pary challenged the opposition on Friday to present evidence of fraud to the OAS.

“What has to be demonstrated in this audit is whether there was fraud or there was no fraud,” the minister said, adding Mesa should have been able to collect copies of all the vote tallies from his delegates at polling stations.

On the streets calls for new elections rather than just a second round vote have grown louder, with anti-government protesters calling for Morales to step down entirely.

“We are not going to get tired ... until we get this government out,” said coca farmer Felix Quispe.

Mesa, who ruled Bolivia from 2003 to 2005, has said little since the start of the audit, which is in the hands of 30 technicians selected by the OAS. However, in recent days he has questioned the audit and said significant numbers of votes should be annulled.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Daniel Ramos; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Frances Kerry