By Monica Machicao
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian opposition leader Carlos Mesa, who accuses former President Evo Morales of leading a political witch hunt against him, says he fears arrest and more broadly for democracy in his country amid a probe into controversial claims of a 2019 coup.
Mesa, in an interview with Reuters after being called to the public prosecutor's office last week, said political opposition was being stifled and that Bolivia risked sliding down a dangerous path akin to Nicaragua, where the government is cracking down on the opposition and media.
Morales, who led the Andean country for almost 14 years, remains influential as the head of the ruling Movement for Socialism party, which has made allegations against Mesa that he was involved in a purported coup in 2019. Mesa, a former president and the runner-up in elections in 2019 and 2020, said the coup "did not exist" and was a "fabrication."
"There is a risk of my arrest ... Of course I'm concerned that it might happen," Mesa said, blaming Morales for using the judiciary to "persecute" political rivals.
Morales resigned in 2019 amid widespread protests over an election where he had sought a fourth-term in office and which was mired in allegations of electoral fraud. In a power vacuum, a conservative lawmaker Jeanine Anez had taken over as president.
Morales and the judiciary did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Mesa's remarks in the interview, although they have publicly increased the temperature on Mesa and his allies they accuse of scheming to place Anez in power.
Presidency spokesman Jorge Richter said it was necessary to do a thorough review of the events of 2019 and to get clear testimonies from the people involved.
Anez herself was arrested in March, prompting criticism from human rights groups over a lack of due process. Anez is in jail on charges including sedition, which she denies.
In elections last year, the socialists swept back into office with Morales' close ally Luis Arce as President.
Mesa said that if he were to be arrested, it would mark a worrying shift toward authoritarianism.
"If it were to happen it would be a turning point," he said. Bolivia "has its difficulties and problems, but it is still a democracy," Mesa said.
Morales on Twitter on Thursday said Mesa "must answer to justice" over what he has called a coup. "Now Mesa, cornered by the truth and the people's cry for justice, tries again to destabilize our brother's democratic government with lies."
Socialist lawmaker Hector Arce, no relation to the president, said that Mesa was simply trying to "wash his hands" of responsibility over "planning and designing a set of strategies to overthrow a legally and democratically elected government".
He also criticized a report by Bolivia's influential Catholic Church, which played down the coup allegations over Anez taking power. The Church had acted along with the European Union and a Spanish government envoy as a mediator during the tense months in 2019.
Mesa said that Morales was pushing the coup allegations to deflect criticism over claims of electoral fraud in the 2019 ballot backed by the Organization of American States (OAS) and because he was facing increasing resistance from more moderate voices within his own party.
"I believe that Bolivia should think about a future without Evo Morales because today he is a toxic ingredient of Bolivian politics," said Mesa, adding the "deeply polarized" country needed a process of peace and reconciliation.
Tatiana Fernandez, an analyst who has done work for the Church and looked at the its role in the 2019 crisis, said the political probes were risking the country's "still fragile democracy" after the crisis two years ago.
"Attacking the facilitator of the dialogue (the Church), holding a former president in jail, trying to stop an ex-president, are definitely bad signs," she said.
(Reporting by Monica Machicao; Writing by Adam Jourdan; editing by Grant McCool)