Exit polls suggest Bolivia's President Evo Morales has narrowly lost a referendum to amend the constitution and allow him to run for a fourth consecutive term. The constitution change would let Morales remain in power until 2025. Opposition supporters are already celebrating the referendum result in parts of La Paz. However, Vice President Alvaro García Linera said the results so far are a "technical tie." The vote takes place amid controversy over who is responsible for a deadly incident of political violence four days earlier in El Alto, the sprawling working-class suburb of La Paz that is a traditional stronghold of Morales' ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). (BBC News, Feb. 22; La Razón, Feb. 18)
In the Feb. 17 incident, six municipal government workers died of asphyxiation after city officials allegedly refused to let them leave the building despite an angry demonstration outside. The demonstration culminated with protesters setting the municipal office on fire. The national government accused El Alto's opposition mayor, Soledad Chapetón, of a "self-assassination" (autoatentado) of her employees; Chapetón retaliated by accusing the government of holding back the National Police to give the protesters a free hand as they torched the building. She invoked the lost lives in urging her followers to vote no in the referendum, saying the "best homage we can make to our fallen comrades it to be able to contribute to democracy" in Bolivia. Six people have been arrested and charged by Bolivia's judicial body, the Fiscalía, over the deadly incident.
Chapetón, of the right-opposition National Unity, was elected last March after her MAS predecessor, Edgar Patana, was accused of corruption. He was ordered arrested in December and ordered to be held in "preventative detention" while the charges against him are under investigation. (ABI, Opinión, Feb. 21; TeleSur, La Razón, Feb. 18; AP, Feb. 17; La Razón, Dec. 9)
The vote has also been clouded by claims in the Bolivian press that Morales, who is single and has closely guarded his personal life, had a child with a young woman, Gabriela Zapata, in 2007, the year after he took office. Carlos Valverde, the independent journalist who broke the story, said the relationship would not be scandalous if not for evidence suggesting Zapata has profited from her ties to the president. She is a senior executive at China CAMC Engineering, a Beijing-based company with contracts from the Bolivian state worth more than $500 million. Photos of Zapata's luxurious home have been circulating online. Morales dismissed the corruption allegations as a ploy by the opposition. "The right, led by the United States, has resorted to a dirty war," he said. "Because they have nothing to offer, they wage a dirty war." (Página Siete, Feb. 21; NYT, Feb. 17)