LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — President Evo Morales' bid to run for another term by amending the constitution appeared headed toward a slim electoral defeat Sunday night, according to unofficial partial vote counts and early results.
Morales has governed for a decade and, while still popular, many Bolivians have tired of corruption in the ruling elite and have shown, especially in recent in municipal elections, an eagerness for fresh faces.
A "yes" vote in Sunday's referendum would have let Bolivia's first indigenous president seek a fourth term in 2019.
The vote couldn't have come at a worse time for Morales. In the past two weeks he has been stung by an influence-peddling scandal involving a former lover and a deadly incident of political violence.
Unofficial "quick counts" of sample voting stations by two polling firms put the "no" vote slightly ahead. The Ipsos-Apoyo firm had it leading 52 percent to 48 percent, based on counted ballots at one of every 15 polling stations.
The official vote count was slow, particularly in rural areas where support for Morales is strongest. With22 percent counted by late Sunday, the ballot question was being rejected by 67 percent.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia said at a news conference Sunday night that the vote was too close to call.
"No one has won, nor has anyone lost," he said, looking frustrated.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, called the tight vote a surprising and major blow for Morales, who won re-election in 2014 with more than 60 percent of the vote.
"While few can deny that Bolivia has seen impressive economic growth and social progress under Morales' rule, many voters are sending a message that it is not enough — they are demanding clean government, accountability and more competitive politics," Shifter said.
Morales, who entered politics as a coca growers union leader, could now be motivated to groom a successor, Shifter said.
Bolivia's constitution, enacted in Morales' initial term, permits presidents and vice presidents to serve two consecutive terms. Morales' first term was deemed by the country's constitutional court not to have counted, so the proposed constitutional change would allow him to run again if passed.
Leonel Fernandez, the former Dominican Republic president heading an Organization of American States observer team, said voting Sunday was conducted "normally and peacefully."
The referendum came after the recent revelation that a former lover of Morales in 2013 was named sales manager of a Chinese company that has obtained nearly $500 million in mostly no-bid state contracts.
Morales denied any impropriety and said he last saw the woman in 2007.
The case deepened doubts about the integrity of Morales' governing Movement Toward Socialism, which has been buffeted by scandal.
Adding to Morales' woes were last week's asphyxiation deaths of six municipal officials in El Alto, the teeming city adjacent to the capital of La Paz run since last year by an opposition mayor.
Pro-Morales forces were accused of setting the blaze that caused the deaths, sacking the building and burning documents that allegedly incriminated the previous mayor in payroll corruption.
Both developments blighted Morales' achievements in cutting poverty, spreading Bolivia's natural resource wealth and empowering its indigenous majority during a decade in office.
Eusebio Condori, a retired schoolteacher, said he voted "no" because the scandal and the deaths "confirm that this government doesn't have a plan for Bolivia, only for itself."
A mother of three, Maria Espinoza, said she voted "no" because she believes in term limits. She echoed the complaint of others that too many jobs depend on political patronage.
South America's left has recently been sullied by scandal but Morales had personally remained unscathed. His movement has been discredited, however, by the skimming of millions from the government-managed Fondo Indigena, which runs agricultural and public works in the countryside.
Morales presided over an unprecedented economic boom as prices for raw materials soared just as he took office. He built airports, highways and the pride of La Paz, an Austrian-built aerial tramway system. He also put a Chinese-built satellite into space. Average per capita income rose from $873 to $3,119 and a new indigenous middle class was born.
But the boom is over. Bolivia's revenues from natural gas and minerals, making up three-fourths of its exports, were down 32 percent last year.
Economists say Morales leaned heavily on extractive industries to pay for populist programs and failed to diversify the economy.
In addition, judicial corruption has been endemic and press freedom suffered as major news outlets were purchased by people friendly to the government. Critical media and environmentalists complained of harassment by the state.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. AP writer Paola Flores contributed from La Paz.