Bolivia's interim President Jeanine Áñez called for "patience" and urged citizens to avoid violence as they wait for the results from Sunday's general election.
Results are expected to be slower than usual as the Electoral Tribunal suspended the customary rapid count, arguing that it couldn't guarantee the accuracy.
"Patience, we must all be patient waiting for the results without generating any type of violence," said Áñez, who is not standing for president. "I assure you we will have credible results."
Despite a tense and polarised campaign, the election was held peacefully.
"We've had a calm day throughout the whole country up until now," Deputy Security Minister Wilson Santamaría said in a statement.
He mentioned two minor instances in La Paz where people tried to interfere with voting papers but said they had been prevented and apprehended.
Polling stations were open from 8am to 5pm local time (1200-2100 GMT) but some had to stay open longer as queues of people were still waiting to vote.
Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate Luis Arce, who has consistently led opinion polls since he was nominated in January, criticised the suspension of the rapid count as he voted in La Paz, saying it "could generate doubts."
"It's not ideal but we understand that [the electoral body] has chosen the path to guaranteeing absolute security of the vote and above all the official count," said centrist former president Carlos Mesa, who has been running second in polls and is expected to face Arce in a run-off next month.
The election, which was twice postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, was the first in 20 years not to feature former president Evo Morales.
It came a year after Morales won an unconstitutional fourth term in a controversial election that sparked weeks of protests.
The rapid count in 2019 suggested there would be no outright winner, but after it was inexplicably frozen for 24 hours, Morales had jumped into a winning lead over Mesa once the live count resumed.
A later audit by the Organisation of American States found clear evidence of fraud.
'Result must be respected'
Morales, who resigned and fled into exile in Buenos Aires, is barred from taking part but tried to ratchet up tensions during campaigning from his new base in Argentina.
MAS warned of a pending "fraud" and threatened to protest should they not get their way, while misinformation has been circulating freely.
But Morales struck a different tone on Sunday, saying "the election result must be respected by everyone."
"It's very important that all Bolivians and political parties wait calmly for every single vote... to be counted," added Morales, who was in power from 2006 to 2019.
He also promised to return to Bolivia – where he is being investigated for "rape and trafficking" over allegations he had relationships with underage girls, and even fathered a child with one – "the next day" should his former finance minister Arce win.
Discussing the decision to suspend the count at a press conference at the headquarters of Argentina's CTA workers' union, the former president also emphasised that his party had a system in place to monitor the count and ensure ballots are fully counted.
"It is very important that each and every Bolivian and the political parties calmly wait for each of the votes, both from the cities and from the rural areas, to be taken into account and that the result of the elections is respected by all," said Morales, speaking to the press at the headquarters of the CTA workers’ union.
"The priority is exclusively the recovery of democracy. Let us not fall into any kind of provocation," he said.
"Our delegates at each table will monitor and record each electoral act. The people will also accompany us in this task of commitment to democracy," said Morales, who is unable to vote.
Voting, which is mandatory up to the age of 60, was slow in part due to social distancing rules imposed over the coronavirus pandemic.
"I hope the next president will be a candidate who helps the countryside, the poor people," Silverio Chirinos, a 69-year-old farmer in Huarina on the shores of Lake Titicaca, told AFP.
Some, however, expected trouble.
"Obviously there will be social upheaval... we just hope it won't last long," Clara Quitalba, 49, from the MAS bastion of EL Alto on the outskirts of La Paz, told AFP.
"I don't know what will happen, but I fear the worst," said Virginia Luna, 41, in La Paz.
Last year's protests left 36 dead and 800 injured.
Observer missions from the European Union, OAS and the Carter Center are present, while United Nations General Secretary António Guterres has called for the result to be respected.
'End of a cycle'
Arce is expected to win Sunday's first round, but the question is whether the 57-year-old can achieve the required 40 percent of votes with a 10-point lead to avoid a run-off.
If not, polls suggest Mesa, 67, would triumph in a run-off with support from the other four candidates.
The vote will bring to an end the year-long interim presidency of conservative Áñez, who withdrew from the race a month ago as criticism rose of her handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 8,400 people dead and infected 130,000. She said her decision would help to nite the anti-Morales vote in the election.
Landlocked Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the region despite its rich natural resources, is also experiencing its worst economic crisis in 40 years, with GDP expected to contract by 6.2 percent in 2020.
As well as choosing a new president, the 7.3 million eligible voters will elect a new Congress, where both chambers are currently controlled by MAS.
Although likely to remain the largest party, MAS is expected to lose its overall majority in the chambers.
Bolivians vote in Argentina
In Argentina, where Morales has been a refugee since December 2019, the 140,000-strong Bolivian community turned out in large numbers to vote at schools specially set up for election day.
In La Matanza, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where a key part of the local Bolivian community resides, long lines were seen outside polling stations, with electoral officials distributing alcohol hand gel and urging people to keep their distance from one another.
Efraín Falcón, a 40-year-old textile worker who has lived in Argentina for 18 years, hopes that the election will bring stability to his homeland.
"I hope that whoever wins, wins well, and whoever loses, loses well. Everything that is happening is very regrettable, but I hope that today the situation will be defined and we will have a real government that governs for all of Bolivia," he said.
Filemón Muñoz Rivera, a 35-year-old construction worker, said that he had gone out to vote "to elect a good president, so that the country returns to normality."
However, he has fears of social unrest. "We know what can happen. Bolivia is very delicate. There may be confrontations. I don't think these elections will end so well," he said.
by Valeria Pacheco, AFP