Bolivia's Morales confident of election win despite count suggesting a run-off

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales shrugged off an early vote count showing Sunday’s election heading for a second round run-off, saying he was confident that uncounted rural votes would help propel him to an outright victory and congressional majority.

Bolivia's President and presidential candidate Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party is greeted by supporters as he arrives to vote during the presidential election at a polling station in a school in Villa 14 de Septiembre, in the Chapare region, Bolivia, October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Morales was seen leading the election with 45% of votes against 38% for chief rival Carlos Mesa, according to a preliminary account of nearly 84% of ballots by Bolivia’s electoral board, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).

However, that was short of the minimum 50% majority or 10-point lead over his closest rival Morales needed to avoid a Dec. 15 second round run-off to decide who will govern Bolivia, a landlocked country of 11 million people, from 2020 to 2025.

Many people, including Mesa, considered the run-off a certainty but Morales, who has governed Bolivia since 2006, confounded them by heralding his victory at a news conference and saying rural votes should help see him home.

“We won once again. Four consecutive elections we’ve won in Bolivia,” said Morales, South America’s longest-serving leftist leader. “We’re confident about the votes from the countryside.”

An abrupt halt to vote counting by the TSE also sparked concern. One official observer, the Organization of American States, called on it to explain why transmission of the data had stopped.

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry said on its Twitter account it was watching the election in Bolivia and was worried about the “unexpected interruption” of the official reporting of results.

A La Paz-based diplomatic source told Reuters that vote counting had been “abruptly shut down,” raising fears about the count being manipulated to avoid a second round. The source said that would be a “very dangerous path.”

The TSE, which was not expected to announce more results until Monday morning, declined to comment.

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Mesa had celebrated the preliminary count amid cheering supporters. “We’re in the second round,” he said.

“Democracy is the most important value for which we are fighting,” said Mesa, 66. “We’re not going to lose it.”

Mesa said in a post after the count was halted his party “is not going to allow manipulation of a result which clearly takes us into a second round.”

A second-round vote would be risky for Morales, who is looking to extend his administration to 19 years. He won his last two elections with more than 60% of the vote in the first round.

Quick non-binding ballot counts by two other pollsters - the Jubileo Foundation and officially sanctioned ViaCiencia - showed a tight race, with about 44% for Morales and 39% for Mesa.

Votes from rural areas that tend to favor Morales were still coming in but many people said they would not be enough for Morales to avoid a runoff.

Morales is running in defiance of term limits and despite a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians voted against allowing him to seek a fourth consecutive term. A local court ruling allowed him to run anyway.

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He has promised to retire after the next five-year term, as he did in the 2014 election.

Chi Hyun Chung, the right-wing Christian Democratic party’s candidate, was running third with close to 9% of the vote, indicating his support base would be a key target for Morales and Mesa in any second round.

He and “anti-Evo” rival Oscar Ortiz both said they would back Mesa in a run-off.

Morales, a former union leader for coca growers, has managed to hang on to power as most other leftist presidents in South America elected in the previous decade were succeeded by right-leaning leaders.

He has overseen a long stretch of political and economic stability for Bolivia, the continent’s poorest country. However, support for him has slipped amid slowing economic growth and concerns about government corruption and anti-democratic practices.

Whoever wins will likely have to govern without a majority in Congress and with a gloomier economic outlook. The commodities-fueled boom that drove rapid economic growth in Bolivia in recent years has ended as its important natural gas reserves dwindled.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Monica Machicao and Mitra Taj in La Paz; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Peter Cooney and Paul Tait