President Evo Morales declared victory Thursday in Bolivia's elections whose disputed results have triggered riots, a general strike and opposition charges that he is trying to steal the election to secure a fourth straight term. But hours later Morales said he is open to holding a run-off if necessary, as demanded by his critics.
Election officials said their preliminary results showed that with 98.95 percent of ballots counted from Sunday's vote, Morales had 46.51 percent, against 36.92 percent for his closest rival, the centrist Carlos Mesa. A margin of at least 10 points would mean outright victory and no run-off.
"We won in the first round," Morales told a press conference. He called this "good news."
There was no immediate confirmation of a Morales victory from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. But the president said later that if he does not obtain a 10-point margin he will respect this result.
"If we have to go to a second round, we will go," he said.
Mesa said Wednesday he would not recognise results tallied by the tribunal, which he accused of manipulating the count to help the leftist Morales win. The candidate is insisting there be a run-off between him and the president, and called on supporters to keep protesting in the streets of this resource-rich but poor South American country.
Observers from the Organisation of American States have expressed concern over the vote count, which first showed Morales and Mesa in a tight race and headed for a run-off, and then shifted dramatically Monday to give the president a wider lead.
Election offices torched
The European Union, Brazil, Argentina and the United States also expressed concern over how the votes were tallied.
The US State Department updated its travel alert for Bolivia, urging "increased caution ... due to civil unrest."
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.
On Monday, after the release of the controversial election results, mobs torched electoral offices in Sucre and Potosí, while rival supporters clashed in La Paz.
A general strike went into force Wednesday.
The OAS and the Catholic church in Bolivia have called for a run-off election as the best way to end the crisis.