Decrying what he called a “coup,” Evo Morales resigned as president of Bolivia amid an increasingly violent uprising that reached a tipping point Sunday when the military pulled its support. Morales’s stunning fall after nearly 14 years in office came hours after the Organization of American States said it had found “clear manipulation” of the vote last month in which the elder statesman of the Latin American left claimed victory.
The dizzying pace of developments Sunday made an ignominious ending for the region's longest-serving leader. Bolivia's first indigenous president won credit for fighting poverty and transforming cities with state investment even as criticism of his authoritarian tendencies rose. Ultimately, the 60-year-old socialist who once commanded landslide victories at the polls found himself isolated: The heads of the armed forces and national police both called on Morales to step down on Sunday, and the country's main labor union asked him to resign if that's what it took to save a nation rapidly plunging into mob rule.
Morales and his senior officials denounced the pressure as an effective coup orchestrated by his right-wing challenger, former president Carlos Mesa, and other opposition leaders. Protesters ransacked and burned the homes of senior members of Morales's Movement for Socialism party and, in at least one instance, kidnapped a relative. The restive Sunday capped three weeks of violence that began when right-wing supporters infuriated by what they saw as a power grab by Morales in the Oct. 20 vote started torching election centers.
Morales's resignation did not immediately stop the violence - socialist officials denounced the ransacking of Morales's home late Sunday. The former head of Bolivia's electoral tribunal, Maria Eugenia Choque, was detained, police said, and arrest warrants against other tribunal officials were announced. Morales's former health minister, Gabriela Montaño, said on Twitter that police were trying to "illegally detain" Morales.
"We resign because I don't want to see any more families attacked by instruction of Mesa and [opposition leader Luis Fernando] Camacho," Morales said. "This is not a betrayal to social movements. The fight continues. We are the people, and thanks to this political union, we have freed Bolivia. We leave this homeland freed."
"Mesa and Camacho have achieved their objective," Morales added. "Now stop burning the houses of my brothers and sisters."
Also stepping down were Vice President Álvaro García Linera, Chamber of Deputies President Victor Borda and Senate President Adriana Salvatierra, leaving the country without a constitutional leader. Borda resigned after protesters set his house in the mountain city of Potosi ablaze and kidnapped his brother.
It was unclear late Sunday who would take charge. Under the Bolivian constitution, elections after such a crisis must be held within 90 days.
The right portrayed Morales's resignation as a liberation - and the only way to restore democracy.
"To Bolivia, its people, the young, the women, to the heroism of peaceful resistance. I will never forget this unique day," Mesa said in a tweet. "The end of tyranny. I'm grateful to the Bolivian people for this historic lesson. Long live Bolivia!"
Mesa refuted the notion of a "coup."
"We shall not permit the ex-president to use the excuse of a coup," Mesa told reporters. "This was not a coup,"
The ouster of Morales, a highly public supporter of authoritarian, hard-left governments in Venezuela and Cuba, changes the balance of power for the left in Latin America, which has now abruptly lost one of its most visible heads of state. The action divided the region, with right-leaning governments remaining largely quiet, while the left-leaning governments blasted his ouster, calling it an unwelcome reminder of the days of military coups.
"In Bolivia there is an ongoing military operation, we reject it, it is similar to those tragic events that [bloodied] Latin America in the last century," Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted. "Mexico will maintain its position of respect for democracy and institutions. Coups, no."
The shocking speed with which Morales fell stood in sharp contrast to the slow effort to oust Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro following elections there last year that were widely seen as fraudulent. A key difference, analysts said, was the extent to which the military and police didn't back Morales - compared with the general loyalty, albeit through fear, their peers in Venezuela have showed Maduro.
Maduro has showed no hesitation to move against protesters in Venezuela, leading to more than 100 deaths in Venezuela last year. Morales never deployed state forces or called his supporters out to battle the opposition.
"They made a conscious choice to avoid sustained, violent conflict," said Kathy Ledebur, the director of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia. "The rural areas that support Evo could have come and laid siege to the cities. They could have kept it up for days. That did not happen."
Weeks of tensions spilled over on Sunday after the release of the election audit by the Organization of American States. The multilateral organization, invited by Morales to review the vote, found that it was marred by profound irregularities.
The Bolivian electoral tribunal had shown Morales beating Mesa, his closest challenger in a field of nine, by just over 10 percent, the margin required to avoid a second round. Had the vote gone to a head-to-head runoff, Morales and his socialists would have faced a united opposition with a good shot at unseating him.
Morales said early Sunday that he would accept the recommendation of the OAS to replace the electoral commission and hold new elections. He also suggested he might not stand for reelection in that vote.
"For the moment, candidacies should be secondary," he said. "The priority is to pacify Bolivia, to go to a dialogue, and to agree on how to change the Supreme Electoral Tribunal working with the Legislative Assembly."
But in a news conference Sunday afternoon, Williams Kaliman, the head of the armed forces, suggested that Morales step aside immediately. On Saturday, Kaliman warned that the military would not be deployed against the protesters.
Gen. Vladimir Calderón, head of the national police, also asked for Morales's resignation, to "pacify the nation in these difficult times." A day earlier, officers at the presidential palace had abandoned their posts, joining a broader strike by police who insisted they would not be used as "political tools." Some police officers joined the anti-Morales protests.
Strikes, protests and roadblocks had paralyzed South America's poorest nation since the Oct. 20 vote. In the town of Vinto late last week, opposition protesters abducted the socialist mayor, dragged her through the streets, doused her with red paint and forcibly cut her hair.
As protests continued, Morales had denounced a "coup" against him. He called for a dialogue with the main political opposition parties - a call they promptly rejected.
"I have nothing to negotiate with Evo Morales," Mesa tweeted Saturday. "He has lost, lamentably, his link with reality."
Yet his strongest blow came from outside Bolivia - in the form of the OAS audit, which Morales and his Movement for Socialism had pledged to honor. In its preliminary report, the organization said "the manipulations to the computer system are of such magnitude that they must be deeply investigated by the Bolivian state to get to the bottom of and assign responsibility in this serious case."
OAS auditors said the voting transmission system was not "100% monitored" or under the control of the appropriate technician. Information was at one point redirected, and thus "it is not possible to have certainty about the . . . results."
The OAS also said "good practices" were not applied to the official vote-counting because the system "permitted someone to take control" of parts of the process that were supposed to be secure. The integrity of the software was not respected, auditors said; at one point, they said, the system was frozen and fixed in a manner that violated the "essential principles of security."
The OAS concluded that 78 of 333 evaluated vote counts from polling stations showed irregularities and manipulation. The last 5 percent of the vote counting was especially "unusual," auditors said, in that it showed a significant increase for Morales and a sharp decrease for Mesa.
"In some cases we verified that all the ballots at one [polling station] had been completed by the same person," the OAS wrote. "In some cases we confirmed that person was a representative of [Morales's Movement for Socialism]. . . . We found, also, many ballots in which the ruling party obtained a 100% of the votes."
Before Morales resigned, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed the OAS findings and seemed to suggest that Morales should not stand for reelection.
"In order to restore credibility to the electoral process, all government officials and officials of any political organizations implicated in the flawed October 20 elections should step aside from the electoral process," Pompeo said.
Morales has been credited with significantly reducing Bolivia's poverty rate through state intervention. But he is also accused of a gradual turn toward authoritarianism.
In 2016, he held a national referendum that would have allowed him to seek a fourth term - and lost. Then he secured a court ruling that enabled him to run again.