ROSARIO, Argentina – With barely 6 percent of all ballot boxes counted, the party of Evo Morales claimed victory in Bolivia’s presidential election, marking a stunning political comeback a year after massive protests in the 2019 elections forced him to resign the presidency and flee the country.

Sunday’s presidential poll was a high-stakes redo of last year voting that saw hundreds of thousands protest in the streets over alleged vote-rigging.

The situation in the country was considered so precarious before the election that the Bolivian bishops’ conference released a statement congratulating the people for the peaceful proceedings.

“Congratulations to the Bolivian people for the electoral day lived in peace and respect for all, with great participation, freely expressing their sovereign will for the future of Bolivia,” the bishops wrote in a statement issued before the first results came in, some nine hours after polls closed.

“It was a great day, an expression of the democratic vocation of our people, an electoral day called to normalize democracy and elections, as a free expression of the popular will,” the bishops wrote. “We ask to continue in this climate of peace, awaiting the final results that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal will offer us.”

Morales, currently a political refugee in neighboring Argentina, was not on the ballot, and his leftwing party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) ran Luis Arce, his former finance minister, as candidate.

The fact that he’s not on the ballot does not mean that Morales is not at the center of the process. In fact, it was him, not the actual candidate, who self-proclaimed victory for his party from Argentina.

“Brothers of Bolivia in the world, Lucho [Arce] will be our president,” Morales said just after midnight. “This will contribute to our country, to the path of economic, political and social development and especially, economic growth.”

In late September, Morales promised to return to the country “the next day” if Arce won, but he’s yet to confirm this is still his intention.

Despite the fact that official results are not expected for days, even interim President Jeanine Áñez, a long-time rival of Morales, recognized Sunday night that the socialist movement seemed on its way to regaining power.

Two private surveys projected Morales candidate had secured more than 50 percent of the vote in the ballot on Sunday, with his closest rival, the centrist former president Carlos Mesa, receiving about 30 percent.

“We have reclaimed democracy and above all we have reclaimed hope,” said Arce on Sunday night, when he vowed to end the uncertainty that has plagued the country since October 2019, when highly disputed claims of vote rigging against his party resulted in mass street protests. Last year’s presidential election was scrapped and Áñez took office.

The rightwing interim president conceded with a tweet: “We do not yet have the official count, but the data we do have shows that Mr Arce [has] … won the election. I congratulate the winners and ask them to govern thinking of Bolivia and of democracy.”

“We will govern for all Bolivians … we will bring unity to our country,” said Arce.

An estimated seven million Bolivians turned out to vote to elect not only a new president, but also members of both houses of parliament.

Last year’s election had been questioned not only by Bolivians, who saw the numbers suspiciously change over several days. Among those who denounced the vote as a fraud was the Observation Mission of the Organization of American States.

The date of the elections had to be postponed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some believe that Áñez’s inability to stop the spread of the virus, that affected 140,000 people and killed 8,000 in Bolivia, as one of the reasons for the return to power for MAS.

Añez herself contracted the virus, along with a dozen members of her senior cabinet. On top of the health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has further hurt the Bolivian economy, with unemployment spiking and the International Monetary Fund predicting a nearly 8 percent drop in the country’s GDP this year.

But much like thousands saw fraud in last year election, on the other side of the ideological divide, others saw a coup d’état, including Morales himself and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, who late on Sunday congratulated MAS for the victory with a Tweet.

“Great victory! The Bolivian people, united and conscious, defeated with votes the coup against our brother Evo. Congratulations to President-elect Luis Arce, Vice President David Choquehuanca and our South Indian Chief [Morales],” the Venezuelan president tweeted.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma