A bid by President Evo Morales of Bolivia to run for another term by amending the constitution appeared headed toward a slim electoral defeat Sunday, according to unofficial partial vote counts and early results.
Morales has governed for a decade. 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.
Two unofficial "quick counts" by polling firms put the "no" vote slightly ahead. The Ipsos-Apoyo firm had it lead 52 percent to 48 percent. It counted ballots at one in 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, which was 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 change to allow a president to seek re-election twice would allow him to run again.
Pre-election polls said voters who had decided were evenly split on the change, while about 15 percent were undecided.
But the polls were done before the revelation by an opposition-aligned journalist 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 threatened to eclipse Morales' achievements in cutting poverty, spreading Bolivia's natural resource wealth and empowering its indigenous majority during a decade in office.
Although Morales has personally remained unscathed by scandal his movement has been discredited by the skimming of millions from the government-managed Fondo Indigena, which runs agricultural and public works in the countryside.
The Associated Press