Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 9 minutes

Bolivia Plans for an Uncertain Election

Amid political turmoil around Bolivia’s election last year, protesters from both sides took to the streets, and election-related violence killed at least 36 people. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to work closely with all political parties to make sure a timely and credible presidential election takes place.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Bolivians will return to the polls on 3 May 2020 to elect a new president after their congress voided the 20 October 2019 election because of suspected fraud. Following the disputed vote, deepening unrest and pressure from the military high command culminated in the resignation of former president Evo Morales, the former vice president and other senior figures in the then-ruling party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Opposition Senator Jeanine Áñez was soon after sworn in as interim president. Amid the political tumult, protesters on both sides of the political spectrum took to the street, and election-related violence left at least 36 people dead and more than 800 injured. Mediation efforts led by the EU, the UN and the Catholic Church after Morales’ resignation helped broker a new law that annulled the October election and put new polls on the calendar. This in turn helped curb the violence, but the situation remains volatile and tense.

To steer the country away from further violence, it is incumbent on Bolivia’s transitional authorities to conduct a credible, transparent and legitimate election.

To steer the country away from further violence, it is incumbent on Bolivia’s transitional authorities to conduct a credible, transparent and legitimate election. Any suggestion of electoral fraud or manipulation risks stirring up fresh street protests. Stability in the coming months likely also depends on the government showing restraint in the policies it seeks to advance. MAS supporters fear the administration, led by a lowland politician of European descent, is overstepping its transitional duties and undermining the Morales government’s fourteen-year campaign to empower indigenous communities, who make up the majority of Bolivia’s population. They are similarly concerned that Bolivia’s radical left-to-right switch in foreign policy, exemplified in breaking diplomatic ties with the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, outstrips Áñez’s mandate.

Political tensions could also intensify if Morales returns to Bolivia in the coming months. The ex-president is currently in Argentina, where he was granted refugee status, but has spoken openly about his desire to return to Bolivia. The Áñez administration has issued a warrant for his arrest, and said he would be detained if he enters the country. But Morales remains a popular figure among his constituents, and any attempt to arrest him could spark a violent backlash.

In this context, the EU and its member states should:

  • Work closely with all political parties to make sure a timely and credible presidential election takes place according to the calendar announced by the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE), including by committing the necessary resources to strengthen the electoral system and conduct a robust electoral monitoring mission.
  • Sustain the mediation initiative that helped curtail post-electoral violence to help address political grievances and other sources of conflict, at both the local and national level, for the duration of the transitional government.
  • Through diplomatic channels, encourage the transitional government to play a caretaker role, focus on elections, and leave policy decisions to elected leaders selected in the coming election.
  • Discourage Evo Morales from returning to the country prior to the election given the risk that he would be arrested, touching off mass violence, while also making clear that the elected government should clear him of all politically-motivated charges and permit his return after the elections.
  • To deter further abuse and provide a measure of justice for the victims, provide financial, technical or other support as needed to the forthcoming investigation announced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) regarding the violence and abuses after the elections.

Back From The Brink

After close to fourteen years in power, Evo Morales, tendered his resignation on 10 November amid massive popular protests over electoral fraud and under strong pressure from the armed forces. Along with Morales, the upper echelons of the ruling MAS party also quit. Views on what occurred are deeply polarised: for Morales’ supporters, his departure from power was a coup; his opponents saw it as restoring democracy.

In the days that followed the resignations, Jeanine Áñez – an opposition senator next in line for the presidency – asserted her claim to the interim post, saying her primary tasks would be to “pacify the country” and organise elections. But the abrupt pivot from the socialist Morales (the country’s first indigenous president) to Áñez (a pro-business religious conservative) stirred further unrest. This time, MAS supporters took to the streets, where they were met by a fierce security crackdown.

Toward the end of the month, however, the situation took a more positive turn. Thanks to mediation efforts of the EU, the UN and Bolivia’s Catholic Church, Bolivia’s legislature unanimously approved a law on 24 November 2019 that nullified the 20 October 2019 elections, and ordered the appointment of a new governing body for the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE). The law also establishes two-term limits for all elected officials, thus disqualifying Evo Morales and his vice president Álvaro García Linera from taking part in the 2020 poll, while also ordering the TSE to organise a new election within 120 days. Elections are now slated for 3 May 2020. The call for a new vote, and the promise of deep reforms to the electoral process, helped bring an end to the protests and related violence. In early December, MAS appointed Morales as chief of its presidential campaign. After getting the green light from the TSE, Morales announced on 19 January that his former economy minister Luis Arce would be the MAS presidential candidate, with former foreign minister David Choquehuanca running as his vice president. Both Arce and Choquehuanca served as ministers for over a decade during the Morales administration, and are close to the former president.

Several international bodies have promised their support to ensure the transparency and integrity of the anticipated election. The OAS and the EU are negotiating with the Áñez administration details of their electoral monitoring missions. Simultaneously, the UN, U.S. Agency for International Development and IDEA International, among others, will help repair offices of the electoral authorities damaged during the November protests, and fill TSE vacancies at local and regional levels.

Navigating a rocky transition

Although the November transition plan pacified Bolivia after weeks of intensifying violence, disagreements over the interim government’s mandate are an ongoing source of friction. There are no explicit constitutional boundaries on its ability to steer national policy, but the widely held view among Morales supporters is that the Áñez government should focus narrowly on steering the country toward timely and credible polls within the 120-day window established in November.

The government, however, has gone considerably further. It has fed resentment among MAS supporters by wading into issues with significant long-term implications, such as minimum wage negotiations, changes to export regulations, the possible privatisation of state enterprises, modifications to price control mechanisms for household items, and social security reform. The same is true with respect to some of Áñez’s foreign policy decisions, such as breaking ties with the Maduro government in Venezuela, and expelling the Mexican ambassador and Spanish consul.

MAS supporters are understandably concerned that the Áñez government could be seeking to walk back signature Morales-era reforms.

MAS supporters are understandably concerned that the Áñez government could be seeking to walk back signature Morales-era reforms – which broke new ground in promoting indigenous people’s rights, economic advancement and lifted many out of poverty. In the immediate aftermath of Morales’ resignation, anti-MAS protesters fanned the country’s polarised politics by seizing and burning down properties owned by members of the outgoing government. Some police officers tore the indigenous wiphala flag from their uniforms. The revanchist rhetoric from interim government officials has since cooled but not disappeared: Áñez caused a stir in early January when she spoke of the importance of keeping “the savages” from returning to power, prompting Morales to suggest that the remark confirmed her “racism”.

Against this backdrop, MAS supporters have demanded the transitional government stay true to a caretaker role, limiting its focus to organising elections, and honouring commitments made by the preceding administration in the 2020 budget, particularly local infrastructure projects and welfare programs that benefit poor communities. Almost 50 per cent of Bolivians benefit from welfare programs created by Morales targeting the eradication of extreme poverty.

MAS supporters also express concern that the transitional government may be taking actions prejudicial to regions where the party has a strong presence – especially indigenous-dominated areas foundational to Morales’ political power such as El Alto, Chapare and Sacaba – including actions that may affect the coming vote. In Chapare, where MAS supporters looted and burned down police stations in protest against Morales’ ouster, the police have withdrawn from the region. Members of the current government have warned that, if conditions do not improve so that the police can promptly return, it will be impossible to hold a vote there.

The tense dynamics between the interim government and MAS supporters could well come to a head if Morales seeks to return to the country before the election. Still very popular among his constituents and the unquestioned party leader, despite the emergence of divisions within the MAS, he has been weathering the political storm in Argentina, where he arrived on 12 December, after a month’s stay in Mexico and Cuba. Bolivian authorities charged him and MAS leader Faustino Yucra with rebellion and terrorism-related offenses, and issued a warrant for his arrest. The charges are based on a video of Morales in conversation with Yucra, in which the former president said he was determined to return to his country, and discussed his strategy of blockading several cities and halting their food deliveries to that end.

It is not clear whether Morales intends to test the authorities’ resolve by returning to the country. Should he do so, and should the authorities arrest him, the consequences could be dramatic. Jailing Morales would in all likelihood trigger massive protests, provoke clashes between MAS militants and state forces, and end the fragile equilibrium that has curbed the violence since late November.


Having played an important role in brokering the November arrangements that de-escalated the crisis in Bolivia, Europe’s focus should now be on ensuring that the upcoming elections are timely and credible, and on helping the country reach 3 May without further violence. The EU and member states should make sure that La Paz has all the technical or financial support it requires to hold such elections and Brussels should continue preparations to mount an electoral monitoring mission alongside the Organization of American States. This monitoring mission will be central to reassuring Bolivians that the polls are conducted fairly and the results are legitimate.

Europe’s focus should now be on ensuring that the upcoming elections are timely and credible.

The EU and member states should also work with all political parties to anticipate and tamp down crises that could upset the country’s delicate status quo. They should encourage the interim government to hew to a caretaker role, steering well clear of policies that suggest an undoing of Morales’ legacy accomplishments or that would reset Bolivia’s international relations. As for Morales, they should encourage him not to attempt to return to the country prior to the election, which would risk his arrest and a corresponding surge of violence, even as they make clear that the newly elected government should review the charges against him and drop those that are politically motivated, enabling his eventual return to the country. As a safeguard in the event disputes arise, Brussels and member states should also support keeping in place the mediation initiative created by the EU, the UN and the Catholic Church.

Finally, the EU and member states should offer financial and technical support to a forthcoming investigation by a group of experts under the auspices of the IACHR into the violence that took place in the last four months of 2019. In addition to developing a factual record that may help victims and their families attain a measure of justice, the investigation – which La Paz has agreed to with the IACHR – may have some deterrent effect on would-be perpetrators as the election draws near.

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