Bolivia's opposition launched a strike Wednesday amid protests and disturbances over disputed election results that pointed to another term for President Evo Morales, who likened the stoppage caused by the strike to a right-wing coup.
Speaking to reporters, Morales said he will take measures to "defend" democracy and is confident he will be declared the winner of Sunday's election with no need for a run-off.
Clashes broke out between rival demonstrators Wednesday in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, the country's largest and an opposition bastion.
Offices in the city housing Bolivia's electoral authority were set on fire overnight, and security forces clashed with demonstrators in La Paz and elsewhere.
Morales, a former coca farmer and Latin America's longest serving leader, is seeking a fourth straight term. The opposition has reported fraud in the counting of votes from the weekend election.
"A coup is underway. I want the people of Bolivia to know. Until now, humbly, we have put up with it in order to avoid violence and we have not entered into confrontation," Morales said in his first public remarks since the election, referring to the strike and violent anti-government protests that broke out after the election.
A “drastic and hard to explain change”
Partial results released Sunday night suggested Morales would face off in a second round with his main rival, the centrist Carlos Mesa. There was then a 15-hour pause where no more results were made public.
Things changed dramatically Monday when the electoral commission released new numbers that practically gave the win to Morales, drawing opposition complaints of fraud and triggering rioting in some cities.
Mobs torched electoral offices in Sucre and Potosi, while rival supporters clashed in the capital La Paz.
Monitors from the Organisation of American States said they, too, had seen a "drastic and hard to explain change" in the trend of the initial results.
As of Wednesday around noon in Bolivia, with 96.6 percent of votes counted, Morales had 46.03 percent compared to 37.36 percent for Mesa. He needs a 10 point lead over Morales to avoid a runoff, according to the commission.
Representatives of civil society organisations from Bolivia's six regions backed a call to extend a strike originally set for Tuesday in the country's largest city Santa Cruz.
The general strike went into effect at midnight Tuesday and will "continue until democracy and the will of the citizens are respected," the organisations said.
Protests in support of Morales
Meanwhile, an umbrella organisation of pro-Morales labor and farmers' unions, CONALCAM, called on its members to defend the official results.
"We will go out on the streets and on the roads to firmly defend democracy and the votes of Bolivians," said the leader of the main union, Juan Carlos Guarachi, after a meeting with Morales.
Long lines formed at gas stations Tuesday amid fears of shortages.
Health workers, on strike for the past month, demonstrated outside the electoral authority headquarters on Tuesday.
Mesa, who served as president from 2003 to 2005, accused Morales of colluding with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to tweak results and avoid a run-off.
Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia also voiced concern.
A new mandate
Morales has led the country since taking office in 2006, when he became its first indigenous president, but his popularity has waned in recent years amid allegations of corruption.
A new mandate would keep him in power until 2025.
As leader of his Movement for Socialism Party, Morales points to a decade of economic stability and considerable industrialisation as his achievements, while insisting he has brought "dignity" to Bolivia's indigenous population, the largest in Latin America.