By Mitra Taj
LA PAZ, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Bolivia's presidential election has sowed widespread confusion. A preliminary count of almost 85% of ballots had strongly indicated there would need to be a second-round runoff, with President Evo Morales in first place but with main rival Carlos Mesa within striking distance.
Morales disagreed. Votes still to be counted would help give him the majority he needed to win outright, the leftist leader said in a midnight presser.
The official Cambio newspaper on Monday ran a front-page headline saying Morales' had won, securing his fourth successive term.
The uncertainty sparked fears among observers and diplomats about potential manipulation of the vote to avoid a risky second round, and of unrest that could follow in the landlocked nation, even as nearby Chile and Ecuador grapple with violence on the streets.
"The region is convulsing. 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.
Morales was seen leading with 45% of the votes against 38% for Mesa, according to a preliminary count of ballots by Bolivia's electoral board, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). Other pollsters also showed a tight race that would lead to a runoff vote.
Late on Sunday, however, the TSE halted the provisionary count with just 83.76% of the ballot done. That move prompted the official monitor, the Organization of American States (OAS), to demand to know why.
"It's crucial that this process is carried out quickly and transparently," the OAS said in a Tweet on Monday, as fears of unrest grew and Mesa said he was heading to the country's second city Santa Cruz to support groups mobilizing to demand the second round of voting.
Brazil's foreign ministry also expressed concern over the "unexpected interruption" of the official reporting of results.
The president needs over 50% or 40% with a 10-point lead over his closest rival to avoid a risky Dec. 15 second round runoff. If he wins, Latin America's longest continuous-serving standing leader would extend his rule to 19 years.
Morales, a former union leader for coca growers, has overseen a long stretch of political and economic stability for Bolivia, the continent's poorest country. His support has slipped amid slowing economic growth and concerns about government corruption and anti-democratic practices.
Political analyst Pareja said Morales would need almost all the outstanding votes to reach a majority, which though not impossible was highly unlikely. "(So) even if he does win, no one is going to believe him," he said. (Reporting by Mitra Taj; Writing by Adam Jourdan; editing by Bill Berkrot)
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