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Spoiled ballots deliver first electoral setback for Bolivia's Morales

Bolivia's President Evo Morales speaks at a news conference in La Paz on Oct.16, 2011.

Gaston Brito/Reuters

Most Bolivian voters cast spoiled ballots in an election on Sunday to choose national judges, according to unofficial polling results, handing a rebuke to President Evo Morales in a vote that had been seen as a test for the leftist leader.

Mr. Morales' traditional base of Indian support appeared to hand him a setback, angered by his plans to build a $420-million highway through the Amazon and a subsequent police crackdown on protesters opposed to the road's construction.

If the polling results were matched by official results, the number of spoiled ballots would be seen as the first electoral setback for Mr. Morales, the Andean country's first president of indigenous descent, in his nearly six years in office.

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Mr. Morales, looking disheartened, declined to discuss the outcome of the election, but said turnout had been high. Voting is compulsory in Bolivia.

"Some said there wouldn't be participation of the people in these elections," Mr. Morales told reporters in La Paz on Sunday night. "Those who tried to boycott these elections failed."

Electoral authorities had expected the first official results to be released on Sunday, but as of midnight, they had not been made available.

Mr. Morales' rightist rivals had urged voters to abstain from voting or cast blank ballots in the first election to directly select Bolivia's top judges, a proposed reform aimed at bolstering the political clout of the country's indigenous majority.

Samuel Doria Medina, a center-right opposition leader who headed the movement to spoil ballots, urged winning candidates on Sunday not to take up their positions out of "a democratic consciousness before the majority of void ballots."

According to the unofficial quick count conducted by Ipsos Apoyo, void votes accounted for between 46 and 48 per cent of ballots. Valid votes accounted for about 38 per cent and the remaining ballots were blank, private television channel ATB said, with 76.2 per cent of the count completed. Absenteeism was estimated at around 20 per cent.

While the candidates with the highest number of votes would win, regardless of how many invalid votes were cast, analysts said such an outcome is likely to intensify social malaise.

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"From now on there will be a citizen movement that will lead us into a spiral of heightening tensions," said analyst Carlos Cordero.

Discontent has already brewed after police broke up a march against the construction of the Amazon highway, triggering political fallout that led the resignation of the country's interior minister last month.

"We're witnessing the consequences of the (repression of the indigenous march)," Claudia Pena, minister of autonomy, told local radio.

Bolivia's 5.2 million registered voters voted to elect 28 members of the four courts with nationwide jurisdiction. Mr. Morales had billed the election as "the next step in the refounding of Bolivia."

The leftist leader has reversed the privatizations of the free-market in the 1990s by strengthening the state's hand in the economy.

Voters were asked to choose members of the country's four national courts from a list of 116 candidates. Half the candidates were women and many are indigenous. The opposition rejected them because they were picked by the government-controlled Congress.

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Until now, these judges were chosen directly by Congress.

The judicial shake-up was the latest in a series of reforms that Mr. Morales says will help reverse five centuries of discrimination against indigenous peoples in Bolivia, the region's biggest natural gas exporter, and domination by a European-descended elite.

Mr. Morales managed to push through a new constitution in 2009, a key demand of the rebellious social groups that toppled two governments between 2003 and 2005.

But he has encountered growing resistance over the last year, facing opposition even from within his indigenous support base over a fuel price hike and his plan to build a road that cuts through the TIPNIS indigenous territory.

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