Bolivia voters end Evo Morales' dream of fourth presidential term
Voters in Bolivia have narrowly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed President Evo Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019.
It is the first direct electoral defeat for the leftist coca grower union leader since he first won the presidency in 2005.
The government's election website said the vote was 51-49% against the ballot question, with 99.5% of the ballots counted, a margin of just over 150,000 votes, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced.
The outcome of the referendum also bars vice president Alvaro Garcia from running again.
Mr Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, helped lift millions out of poverty by more equitably distributing natural gas revenues, spurring the creation of an indigenous middle class.
But his governing Movement Toward Socialism party has been buffeted by scandal and the vote closely followed a revelation that Mr Morales may have been personally involved in influence-peddling.
"Evo's traditional opposition among the affluent and middle class was joined by a wide swathe of voters who have long been a part of his political support," said Jim Shultz, executive director of the left-leaning Democracy Centre political advocacy group.
"Their turnaround isn't about moving rightward", but rather a rejection of corruption that reflects a belief "that 20 years is too long for one person to be president", he added.
Until the ballot, he had won nationwide elections, including a 2009 rewrite of the constitution, with an average 61.5% of the vote
The referendum's margin of defeat coincided almost exactly with two unofficial "quick count" samples announced by polling firms.
The results showed allegations of vote fraud by some members of the opposition to be unfounded, said Jose Luis Exeni, a member of the electoral tribunal.
The vote count had been unusually slow and Mr Garcia said earlier that the outcome would be a "cliff-hanger".
He said a right-wing conspiracy was "trying to make disappear by sleight of hand the rural vote that favours Morales", but provided no evidence to back the claim.
Organisation of American States observers reported no evidence of fraud and the OAS delegation's leader, former Dominican Republic president Leonel Fernandez, left Bolivia on Tuesday.
Early in his presidency Mr Morales crushed the right-wing opposition with an anti-colonialist agenda that championed Bolivia's long-downtrodden native majority. He expelled the Drug Enforcement Administration and a US ambassador, thriving on anti-American rhetoric.
Mr Morales, who leads a coca-growers union, also upset drug warriors with a less violent coca-eradication programme in the world's third biggest producer of cocaine.
But a more formidable opposition eventually emerged from within his own movement and it stung municipal and regional elections in March 2015 , 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 in-fighting in the governing party over a successor could now weaken it even further.
The unprecedented economic boom over which Mr Morales presided, in which gross domestic product per capita rose by nearly one-third, has now waned. Bolivia's revenues from natural gas and minerals, making up three-fourths of its exports, were down 32% last year.
Looking shaken as early results showed the ballot question losing, Mr Morales expressed confidence on Monday that he would prevail and blamed "a smear campaign" on his poor showing in cities, where 70% of the electorate now lives. He also suggested social networks bore some responsibility by spreading unreliable information.
The vote's timing could not have been worse for him.
He was hit this month by an influence-peddling scandal involving a former lover that analysts said cost him dearly. The girlfriend, it was revealed, was named sales manager of a Chinese company in 2013 that has obtained nearly 500 million dollars in mostly no-bid state contracts. Photos of her mansion in a wealthy southern La Paz enclave spread online.
Mr 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.
Most harmful among scandals plaguing the governing party 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 endemic and freedom of expression suffered under Mr Morales, with critical media and environmentalists complaining of harassment by the state.