Bolivia’s socialist President Evo Morales has stepped down after almost 14 years in power following pressure from the chief of the armed forces and a string of resignations in the face of weeks of unrest over a contested election.
“I am resigning,” Mr Morales said in a televised address. “I want to tell you brothers and sisters that the fight does not end here. We will continue this fight for equality for peace.”
Not long before his resignation, Williams Kaliman, the chief commander of the Bolivian armed forces, urged him “to resign his presidential mandate allowing the pacification and maintenance of stability for the good of Bolivia”.
Ministers and officials close to Mr Morales resigned on Sunday afternoon. Unconfirmed rumours and videos showed the presidential jet leaving the administrative capital La Paz to Mr Morales’ stronghold in the coca-growing region of the Chapare.
Earlier in the day, Mr Morales had agreed to call fresh elections “to lower the tension and pacify” Bolivia as protesters joined by the police challenged the results of a poll in which the president secured a controversial fourth term in office.
“With the risk of serious confrontations between Bolivians, as president my main mission is to protect life, preserve peace . . . that is why I have decided . . . to convene new national elections so that through the vote the Bolivian people can democratically elect their authorities,” a visibly tired Mr Morales said on Sunday in a televised address.
He added that the electoral commission — which controversially delayed release of the full results of the presidential poll in October — would be replaced. Mr Morales won a razor-thin majority over former president Carlos Mesa that the Organisation of American States said was “statistically improbable”.
It is unclear when new polls would be held or how this would work. Mr Mesa has called for the national assembly to agree on a “new electoral body and a schedule for the new election”. He also said that Mr Morales “can not be” a candidate in future polls.
On Friday, police forces across the country came out in support of opposition protesters. On Saturday, Mr Kaliman said that “we will never enter into a confrontation with the people”, seen as a reference to anti-Morales protesters.
Reiterating accusations that the protesters were seeking to foment a coup, Mr Morales had first called for an “open agenda debate to pacify Bolivia” and political talks. But this was swiftly rejected by several politicians, including his closest rival in last month’s election, Mr Mesa, who said: “I have nothing to negotiate with Evo Morales.”
Tensions have been high since Mr Morales claimed victory, following an unexplained decision by the electoral commission on election night to freeze count updates for nearly a day after it appeared that Bolivia was headed for a second round of voting.
When the electoral commission resumed updates, they revealed that Latin America’s longest-serving sitting president had stretched his lead and was headed for outright victory. The move sparked unrest, which reached its peak this weekend as protesters from several parts of Bolivia made their way to La Paz, sometimes clashing with firebrand supporters of Mr Morales.
Mr Morales’ position as outright victor in the October 20 elections became untenable after the OAS, which is carrying out an audit of the vote, released a preliminary report highlighting “irregularities that vary from very serious to indicative” in the election and vote counting process. The OAS recommended new elections.
Bolivia’s first indigenous president won three sweeping presidential victories and changed the Bolivian constitution. But he ignored a defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek a fourth term, angering Bolivians who feared he may have autocratic tendencies. “If Evo Morales has one iota of patriotism, he should step aside,” said Mr Mesa on Sunday.