Bolivians spoil ballots in judicial vote to protest Morales

LA PAZ (Reuters) - More than half the ballots cast in Bolivia’s judicial elections on Sunday were spoiled, or nullified, by voters, a sign that the opposition said showed dwindling support for President Evo Morales.

Bolivia's President Evo Morales speaks during a ceremony in Cochabamba, Bolivia, November 30, 2017. Newspaper Reads "US will cut aid if Evo Morales is elected". Enzo De Luca/Courtesy of Bolivian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Tensions are high in Bolivia after the Constitutional Court last week gave Morales the green light to run for a fourth straight term in 2019. Morales’ opponents encouraged voters to spoil their ballots in protest of the ruling.

Morales, a former coca farmer in power since 2006, had previously accepted the results of a referendum in 2016, when 51 percent of voters rejected his proposal to end term limits.

“The citizens have defeated Evo Morales, a leader who is trying to impose re-election on Bolivia, along with corruption and the manipulation of the justice system,” businessman and former presidential candidate Samuel Doria Medina Tweeted.

The 26 judges elected on Sunday will be seated in January.

Morales said in a news conference on Monday that the high number of spoiled ballots should not be seen as a protest against him, but as an attempt by the opposition to block his plan for a judiciary with elected rather than appointed judges.

“The unpatriotic right wing wanted the election of an organic judiciary to fail, but the people have elected their authorities; judges who answer to the people, not to politicians,” Morales said.

The 96 candidates on the ballot were preselected by Congress, where Morales has a majority. Opposition leaders said the vote was a ploy to give Morales supporters control over the electoral court.

Ballots were spoiled by marking more than one candidate, scratching or ripping the papers or doodling on them.

A preliminary report by Bolivia’s elections authority said 78 percent of the country’s 6.4 million eligible voters participated in the election and that more than 50 percent of the ballots cast were spoiled.

Writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Dan Grebler