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LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) – An influence-peddling scandal involving a former lover and a deadly incident of political violence dogged President Evo Morales as Bolivians voted Sunday on whether he should be allowed to run for another term.
The voters were deciding whether to amend the constitution so that Morales, in office for a decade, can run for re-election in 2019. The current limit is two terms and the change would allow presidents to run for re-election twice.
Pre-election polls indicated voters were about evenly split — with some 15 percent undecided — on whether to give Bolivia's first indigenous president another shot at governing. Then the bombshell hit.
An opposition-aligned journalist revealed two weeks ago that an ex-lover of Morales in 2013 was named sales manager of a Chinese company, CAMC Engineering Co. Ltd, which has obtained nearly $500 million in mostly no-bid state contracts.
Morales denied any impropriety, and said he last saw the woman in 2007 when a child they conceived died under circumstances that neither has explained.
The case deepened doubts about the integrity of Morales' governing Movement Toward Socialism, which has been dogged by scandal.
Adding to Morales' woes were last week's asphyxiation deaths of six municipal officials in El Alto, the teeming city adjacent La Paz run since last year by an opposition mayor.
Pro-Morales forces are accused of setting the fire that provoked the deaths, sacking the building where the slain officials worked and torching documents that allegedly incriminate 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.
Eusebio Condori, a 60-year-old 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 31-year-old 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.
"I hope for change in the country," she said.
Alejandro Perez, a 30-year-old independent lawyer, said he voted "yes" because "we've got to ensure continuity."
"Evo Morales is the only person who can fight the economic crisis," said Perez, adding that no one in the opposition is capable.
South America's left has recently been sullied by scandal but Morales had personally remained unscathed.
His ruling circles have 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 Bolivia's biggest economic boom while prices for raw materials soared just as he took office, constructing airports, highways and the pride of La Paz, an Austrian-built aerial tramway system, and putting a Chinese-built satellite into space. In 2014, he won re-election with 60 percent of the vote.
But that 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.
Under Morales, average per capita income rose from $873 to $3,119 and a new indigenous middle class was born.
But judicial corruption has been endemic and press freedom suffered as major news outlets were purchased by people friendly with the government and critical media and environmentalists complained of harassment by the state.