LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — President Evo Morales grudgingly accepted on Wednesday his first direct electoral defeat in a decade in power, the narrow rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have let him run again in 2019.
“We lost a democratic battle but not the war,” he told a news conference, blaming the loss on a “dirty war” by the opposition and an “external conspiracy.”
Asked if the process of choosing a successor would begin in the governing party, Morales reminded the questioner that he still has four years left in office.
“It’s not the moment to speak of a successor. There is a lot of time for that.”
Previously, Morales had averaged 61.5 percent of the vote in electoral wins, including a 2009 constitutional rewrite. But corruption scandals, a weakening economy and the growing unpopularity of his political movement stung this time.
After the outcome became clear Tuesday night, celebrants poured into the streets in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, where opposition to Morales is strong. But fireworks also sounded in La Paz, where people are weary of official corruption.
Sunday’s ballot question was voted down 51 percent to 49 percent, with 99.5 percent of polling stations reporting, a margin of 160,000 votes. The outcome also blocks Vice President Alvaro Garcia from running again.
A native Aymara, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and has changed the ethnic complexion of the landlocked Andean nation’s politics during three terms in office.
He helped lift millions out of poverty by more equitably distributing natural gas revenues, spurring the creation of an ethnic Andean middle class. He built airports, highways and the pride of La Paz, an Austrian-built aerial tramway system. He also put a Chinese-built satellite into space
But Bolivians have been losing patience with his now-entrenched Movement Toward Socialism. And many indigenous peoples who initially lauded Morales for granting them autonomy on paper lost faith when he pushed natural gas and oil projects on their traditional lands.
The referendum also closely followed a revelation that Morales, previously unscathed by scandal, may have been personally involved in influence-peddling.
“Evo’s traditional opposition among the affluent and middle class was joined by a wide swath of voters who have long been a part of his political support,” said Jim Shultz, executive director of the left-leaning Democracy Center political advocacy group.
“Their turnaround isn’t about moving rightward,” but rather a rejection of corruption and an assertion that “20 years is too long for one person to be president,” he added.
The vote count was unusually slow and the vice president claimed Tuesday that a right-wing conspiracy was “trying to make disappear by sleight of hand the rural vote that favors Morales.” He provided no evidence.
Early in his presidency, Morales crushed the right-wing opposition with an agenda that championed Bolivia’s long-downtrodden native majority. He expelled the DEA and a U.S. ambassador, thriving on anti-Yankee rhetoric. Morales, who leads a coca-growers union, also upset Washington drug warriors with a less violent coca-eradication program in the world’s No. 3 producer of cocaine.
But formidable opposition eventually emerged from inside his own movement and it stung in March 2015 municipal and regional elections, when opposition mayors won in eight of Bolivia’s 10 biggest cities.
“The cost of corruption has been high,” said political scientist Marcelo Silva of the Universidad Mayor de San Andres.
He said infighting in the governing party over a successor could now weaken it even further.
The unprecedented economic boom over which he presided, in which gross domestic product per capita rose by nearly a third, has now waned. Bolivia’s revenues from natural gas and minerals, making up three-fourths of its exports, were down 32 percent last year.
The vote’s timing could not have been worse for Morales.
An influence-peddling scandal revealed this month cost him dearly, analysts said.
A former girlfriend nearly half Morales’ 56 years was named sales manager of a Chinese company in 2013 that has obtained nearly $500 million in mostly no-bid state contracts. Photos of her neoclassical mansion in a wealthy southern La Paz enclave spread online.
Morales denied any impropriety and claimed he last saw the woman in 2007. But a picture of the two together last year emerged, casting doubts.
The most harmful scandal plaguing the ruling elite was the skimming of millions from the government-managed Fondo Indigena, which runs agricultural and public works in the countryside.
Judicial corruption has also been rampant, and freedom of expression suffered under Morales, with critical media and environmentalists complaining of harassment by an intolerant and overbearing state.
Associated Press writer Carlos Valdez reported this story in La Paz and AP writer Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. AP writer Paola Flores in La Paz contributed.
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