(Last Updated On: October 23, 2019)

By Mitra Taj

LA PAZ (Reuters) – The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales on Tuesday asked an official observer of the country’s disputed presidential election to conduct an audit of a binding vote count after an official quick tally showing him winning sparked a backlash and violent street protests.

The observer, the Organization of American States (OAS), had raised concerns after the electoral board’s quick count of votes was abruptly halted on Sunday when Morales appeared to be heading for a run-off with chief rival against Carlos Mesa.

When the quick count resumed amid an outcry a day later, Morales had eked out enough of a lead to win outright in the first-round, a change the OAS said had “drastically modified the fate of the election” and hurt confidence in the process.

The OAS, made up of states in the Western Hemisphere, convened a special meeting for Wednesday to discuss the matter.

Foreign Minister Diego Pary denied foul play and announced in a press conference on Tuesday that he had invited the OAS to audit “the whole process of the official vote.”

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Pary added that the OAS and concerned foreign governments such as the United States were welcome to monitor the rest of the official count, which by the time he spoke had advanced to more than 80%, with Morales carrying 44% of ballots and Mesa 40%.

The winner needs more than 50% or 40% plus a 10-point lead to avoid a December 15 run-off.

“Whatever the result may be, we as the government are going to accept it,” Pary told a news conference. “Transparency is important.”

The comments marked a much softer tone from Morales’ speech after the election on Sunday, when he said he was sure outstanding votes from rural areas would give him an outright win, even though the official quick tally showed a second round was likely.

Mesa celebrated a first-round victory on Sunday, then said on Monday he did not recognize the updated results showing Morales winning outright.

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It was unclear if the offer of an audit would be enough to halt protests that continued for a second day in La Paz, after a night of rioting and skirmishes between voters and police that saw vote counting stations and ballot boxes set ablaze in some regions. In one case, two people jumped from a burning building to escape the flames.

Before the announcement, a member of Mesa’s campaign, Cecilia Requena, told Reuters the opposition wanted an audit by the OAS.

MASKED YOUTHS, TEAR GAS

In downtown La Paz on Tuesday, roads near markets were clogged with residents loading up with food while long lines formed at some gas stations amid fears of prolonged unrest or a military curfew.

Videos broadcast on social media and local TV showed clashes between police and masked youths amid plumes of tear gas, and protesters late on Monday pulling down a statue of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, once a close ally of Morales.

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The unrest marked a major jolt for the land-locked country, which has had a long stretch of political stability under Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and South America’s longest continuous-serving standing leader.

Early on Tuesday, leftist Morales took to Twitter to remind Bolivians of high rates of poverty under a right-wing government in the 1990s.

A political group affiliated with Morales, Conalcam, slammed the unrest as part of a coup d’etat orchestrated by the right-wing opposition and called on supporters to defend Morales’ “victory” with peaceful counter-protests.

Morales’ interior minister, Carlos Romero, warned Mesa and his supporters not to stoke violence. “If someone goes too far and doesn’t measure the consequences, that’s their responsibility,” Romero said late on Monday.

(Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio)

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