Evo Morales leads in Bolivia presidential vote but seems headed for runoff

Media playback is unsupported on your device                  Media caption Bolivians embark on long protest march over fires

Media playback is unsupported on your device Media caption Bolivians embark on long protest march over fires

Morales topped the eight other candidates in Sunday's presidential election, but the last released results showed him falling a few points short of the percentage needed to avoid the first runoff in his almost 14 years in power.

Being forced into a runoff would be a blow to Morales, "whose political success has been impressive and who seemed confident of a first-round win", said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, noting concerns about the slowing economy, corruption scandals and Morales push for a fourth term in defiance of both a national referendum and the Bolivian constitution. Critics also accuse him of a delayed response to vast forest fires this year that they blame on his push to develop areas with slash-and-burn agriculture.

In addition to former president and current opposition candidate Carlos Mesa calling for transparency and raising questions of "a manipulation of the vote to impede a second round", the United States has urged Bolivia to act immediately to ensure an open, fair election. The poll surveyed 14,420 people and the margin of error was 2.8 percentage points.

Since sweeping to power in 2006 with his Movement Toward Socialism party, Morales has used revenue from the Andean country's vast natural resources to fund welfare programs and public works projects, lifting millions out of poverty.

Speaking before supporters, Morales declared that he was the victor.

As president, he presided over more than a decade of business-boosting economic growth in South America's poorest country while allying himself with a leftist bloc of Latin American leaders including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Brazil's Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and Ecuador's Rafael Correa. He retains wide support and continues to capitalize on his everyman image as a champion of the poor.

Many Bolivians, such as vendor Celestino Aguirre, still identify with "Evo", as he's widely known.

"What really has deteriorated his power is failing to respect the 2016 referendum that said no to his re-election", Dulón said. "In Bolivia so far there have been tensions but we could go from tension to convulsion if Morales tries to force a victory in the first round", said Bolivian political analyst Franklin Pareja. The 66-year-old journalist and historian has described the election as a choice "between dictatorship and democracy".

"They can't take away democracy from us", he told his supporters in Santa Cruz, a stronghold of opposition to Morales. Neither is expected to gain a majority in Congress, which could lead to an impasse for the upcoming administration.

While Morales has avoided the personal corruption scandals that have tarred or toppled leaders in neighboring Argentina, Brazil and Peru, Human Rights Watch has accused his government of undermining judicial independence by arbitrarily dismissing almost 100 judges since 2017. "That is the principal reason that I'm not going to vote for Evo Morales".

"I'm anxious about the day after the elections", Stefan Duppel, the German ambassador to La Paz, said recently. "There's an atmosphere of distrust and it's key to guarantee that the elections are as clean as possible".