LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales acknowledged defeat in a referendum that would have cleared the way for him to run for a fourth term in 2019, saying in a speech on Wednesday that he would respect the decision of the people.
Morales, a leftist who was first elected in 2006 and is now in his third term, had tried to persuade Bolivians that the constitution should be changed to allow him another run for the presidency.
Most polls ahead of the referendum suggested a narrow win was likely, given Morales' solid support among those who credit him with slashing poverty in Bolivia, South America's poorest country when ranked by gross domestic product per capita.
But in the end, with more than 99 percent of votes counted, the "no" side had 51.3 percent to the "yes" side's 48.7 percent, Bolivia's electoral commission said.
"We respect the results ... we have lost a battle, but we're not defeated," Morales said in a televised speech from the presidential palace.
The rejection is another blow to South America's once dominant populist leftist bloc, which has lost steam as voters have tired of cronyism and tumbling commodities prices have provided less income to fuel government spending.
In Bolivia, one-time coca grower Morales has spent a natural gas windfall on welfare programs and infrastructure. The once marginalized indigenous Aymara, to which he belongs, have particularly benefited.
The president blamed the referendum loss on discrimination and a smear campaign or "dirty war" by the right-wing opposition.
In recent weeks, his popularity has been damaged by revelations that a company that employs an ex-girlfriend had won lucrative government contracts. The problem was compounded when photos emerged showing the couple together last year, although he had said the relationship ended in 2007.
Accusations of corruption have been leveled in the past against his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, but Morales himself has always risen above it.
The referendum result prompted celebrations in Santa Cruz, where criticism of Morales has been fiercest, and the 'no' vote won by a wider margin. La Paz, the capital, remained quiet.
Carlos Mesa, a former Bolivian president, tweeted: "What the vote of Bolivians has said is that there are no indispensable people, just indispensable causes."
What lies ahead is uncertain, said political analyst Ivan Arias, with no clear anointed successor to Morales nor an opposition alternative.
"I fear that the MAS will begin warring internally," he said, adding that the opposition, which had coalesced around the anti-Morales "no" movement, needed to find a new, positive focus.
Morales himself did not detail what he expected to happen next, other than to say: "It's not the moment to talk about successors ... there's lots of time for that."
Analysts and supporters pointed to his acceptance of defeat as setting him part from Venezuela's firebrand leftist Hugo Chavez, often seen as a key influence. Chavez, who died in 2013, lost a referendum in 2007 on his indefinite re-election, but then called and won a new one just over a year later.
Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Monica Machicao, Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Michael Perry, Paul Simao and Steve Orlofsky