Indigenous people stage a protest against the postponement of presidential elections amid the Coronavirus outbreak, in El Alto, Bolivia on July 28, 2020. Marcelo Perez Del Carpio / Anadolu Agency via AFP
Briefing 43 / Latin America & Caribbean 20+ minutes

Bolivia Faces New Polls in Shadow of Fraud Row

Controversy over the 2019 election and its violent aftermath continues to haunt Bolivian politics. As fresh polls approach, outside actors should supply technical advice and monitoring, as well as push rival parties to pledge to keep any disputes off the streets.

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What’s new? Bolivia is set to hold a presidential election on 18 October. Besides the challenge of holding the poll amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the legacy of 2019’s disputed poll, which provoked violent unrest and led former President Evo Morales to flee the country, means that both sides mistrust the election system.

Why does it matter? In late 2019, an agreement to hold new polls under reformed election authorities curbed unrest. Still, the 2019 vote remains controversial, as does the role of Organization of American States observers, whose statements shaped perceptions of rigging. Amid deep social and political polarisation, another flawed poll could trigger further instability.

What should be done? The EU, UN, donor countries, Bolivia’s neighbours and international NGOs should provide technical and political support to the electoral authorities, deploy as robust monitoring missions as is feasible, and press the main political forces to commit publicly to accept results or pursue grievances in the courts, not by protesting.

I. Overview

On 18 October 2020, a year after a troubled election triggered fraud allegations and deadly unrest culminating in President Evo Morales’ flight from the country, Bolivians are due to return to the polls. Standing in the way of a fair and undisputed vote is the practical hurdle of the COVID-19 pandemic, now raging across much of South America and which has already forced election delays. Yet a more fundamental obstacle to ending the bitter aftermath of Morales’ resignation are Bolivia’s political divisions, which have been further embittered by arguments over the 2019 vote and the election system’s legitimacy more broadly. Controversy over the role of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose contentious statements about rigging played a significant part in Morales’ rivals’ rejection of the results, adds another complication. Unless the electoral authorities, with support from multilateral bodies and foreign partners, can assure voters that their ballots are properly counted and tallied, with neither side given any pretext to contest the results, the new poll risks inflaming rather than stabilising the country.

The 2019 debacle and the acrimony surrounding the latter period of Morales’ fourteen years in office look set to overshadow the coming polls.

The 2019 debacle and the acrimony surrounding the latter period of Morales’ fourteen years in office look set to overshadow the coming polls. A newly constituted electoral authority has worked hard to build confidence and turn a page on 2019’s problems. But polarisation between Morales’ supporters and rivals is as deep as ever. Morales’ opponents view the 2019 vote as rigged, enabling the former president to avoid a run-off he would have lost. International observers, notably from the OAS, point to what they argue was evidence of manipulation during the vote tally, alongside other irregularities. In contrast, Morales’ allies portray his ouster as a coup. Their claims recently have gained succour from academic studies in the U.S. questioning the methodology the OAS used to draw some of its influential conclusions. Investigations are unlikely to get to the truth, certainly not before the next vote, meaning that both sides will contest the election with contrasting perceptions of where blame lies for the 2019 crisis. Another flawed and contested vote would fuel Bolivia’s divisions and risk setting off further unrest.

International actors can help. The UN, the EU and donor countries should continue to work together to provide the Bolivian electoral authorities with the technical support they need to organise clean elections despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19. Particularly in light of the controversy over the OAS’s role, the EU, the Carter Center and the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organisms (UNIORE) should bolster their electoral observation and monitoring, in person if the pandemic allows it. Regional governments and donor countries should also provide vocal political support to the electoral authorities and top electoral official, Salvador Romero. Diplomatic efforts should be led within Bolivia by the EU, the UN and the Catholic Church, which can draw on the political capital they gained during their mediation of the post-electoral crisis in 2019. They should urge all political parties to refrain from attacking the electoral authority and abide by the electoral results or, if they do not believe the outcome is fair, pursue disputes through the courts rather than taking to the streets.

II. The October 2019 Elections’ Bitter Legacy

The 2019 election was marred by suspicions of illegality long before the balloting actually took place.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “Keeping Violence in Check after Bolivia’s Political Rupture”, 13 November 2019.Hide Footnote  After voters rejected in a 2016 referendum a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the president a third term, the electoral authority, the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE), greenlighted Morales’ candidacy in a controversial decision stating that term limits violated the president’s political rights.[fn]Bolivian referendum goes against Evo Morales as voters reject fourth term”, The Guardian, 23 February 2016. Emily Achtenberg, “Tensions roil Bolivia as electoral court says Morales can run again”, NACLA blog, 27 December 2018.Hide Footnote  The ruling destroyed many Bolivians’ trust in the tribunal’s independence. According to the EU’s Election Expert Mission Report, published in December 2019, “There was very low public confidence in the impartiality of the TSE, perceived as subject to government control”.[fn]Election Expert Mission Report”, European Union Election Missions, 20 December 2019.Hide Footnote

It was the tallying of results that triggered the crisis.

It was the tallying of results, however, that triggered the crisis. Just before 8pm on 20 October, shortly after polling stations closed, the TSE announced preliminary figures with 84 per cent of the vote counted, showing Morales beating his main rival, Carlos Mesa of the centre-right Civic Community party, by 7.9 per cent.[fn]Elecciones en Bolivia: suspenden el recuento provisional de votos cuando todo apuntaba a una segunda vuelta entre Evo Morales y Carlos Mesa”, BBC Mundo, 21 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Under Bolivian electoral law, the leading candidate must enjoy an advantage of 10 per cent to be declared the victor and avoid a run-off. At that point in the count, the transmission of preliminary results stopped for no clear reason. The blackout lasted almost a whole day, prompting isolated protests by Morales opponents who suspected something was amiss.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, international electoral monitor, 14 July 2020.Hide Footnote  In the evening of 21 October, the electoral authorities announced that, with 95 per cent of votes counted, Morales had a 10.15 per cent margin over Mesa, precluding the need for a second round.[fn]Bolivia’s election panel declares Evo Morales winner after contested tally; opponents demand second round”, The Washington Post, 24 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Statements by international observers contributed to a growing sense that the TSE was stealing the election for the ruling party. As in numerous other polls across Latin America, the OAS had deployed an observation mission. In a press release shortly after the announcement of results, the mission stated that the tally showed “an inexplicable change in trend that drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process”.[fn]Statement of the OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Bolivia”, Organization of American States, 21 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Many politicians and members of the public took the statement as proof of rigging that they already suspected was under way. Protests and counter-protests proliferated across the country, during which demonstrators set fire to several local electoral offices.

The TSE’s announcement of final results on 25 October, showing Morales winning with a 10.56 percentage point margin, brought further strife. Carlos Mesa and opposition protesters refused to recognise the results. Demonstrations took an uglier turn, as tens of thousands took to the streets. Skirmishes pitted security forces against protesters, and Morales supporters against government opponents. Mobs torched properties belonging to leaders of the ruling Movement for Socialism (MAS) party and its opponents, looted stores and burnt down several more local electoral offices.[fn]A delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) visited Bolivia in late November 2019, and established that 36 people were killed in the post-election unrest. At least eighteen died in clashes between MAS supporters and security forces in Sacaba and Senkata in mid-November following Morales’ departure from power. “The IACHR presents its preliminary observations following its visit to Bolivia and requests an urgent international investigation take place into the serious human rights violations that have occurred in the country since the October 2019 elections”, press release, IACHR, 10 December 2019. According to a separate count by Carwil Bjork-James, assistant professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, a total of 35 people died in the aftermath of the crisis: four in protests that took place between the 20 October election and the departure of Morales, and 31 in protests, clashes and the two massacres that followed. “Death during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: an initial analysis”, Carwil without Borders personal blog, 4 January 2020. Crisis Group Statement, “Keeping Violence in Check after Bolivia’s Political Rupture”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Seeking to contain the unrest, Morales asked the OAS to audit the results and promised to comply with its findings. The OAS duly deployed a team of auditors and, on 10 November, they released their own preliminary report, reaffirming the October claim that the variation in voting trends leading to Morales’ supposed first-round re-election was suspicious.[fn]Statement of the Group of Auditors Electoral Process in Bolivia”, Organization of American States, 10 November 2019.Hide Footnote  Alongside its statistical analysis, the report pointed to other instances of alleged electoral wrongdoing: the existence of a ghost internet server not authorised by the auditing company; the unexplainable freezing of the preliminary result count on the evening of the election; concerns over the custody of voting materials; and forged signatures and alteration of tally sheets. The OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, went further. In contrast to the audit’s careful language, he insisted that “there was a coup when Evo committed electoral fraud”.[fn]Luis Almagro: ‘En Bolivia hubo un golpe de Estado cuando Evo Morales cometió fraude electoral’”, El País, 13 November 2019.Hide Footnote  The OAS recommended calling a new vote overseen by a reformed electoral authority.

Morales agreed, even while rejecting the fraud charges, but his concession proved too little, too late. Within hours, the head of the armed forces suggested in a televised message that the president step down.[fn]Bolivian army chief urges Morales to step down”, BBC News, 10 November 2019.Hide Footnote  Morales and the MAS leadership promptly resigned and fled the country. With the president, vice president and head of the legislature all vacating their posts, constitutional succession rules made Jeanine Áñez, a relatively unknown opposition senator from the right-wing Democrat Social Movement party, interim president. MAS protests in the aftermath of Morales’ departure met with violent repression by the security forces.[fn]After Morales: Bolivia faces uncertain future as violence rages”, France 24, 21 November 2019.Hide Footnote  In late 2019, the EU, UN and Catholic Church helped broker a political agreement that, by annulling the October vote and calling for new polls under reformed electoral authorities, effectively curbed unrest, but only after more than 30 people had lost their lives.[fn]After Morales: Bolivia faces uncertain future as violence rages”, France 24, 21 November 2020.Hide Footnote

The OAS’s strong stance on election fraud – first after the results were announced, later repeated after the audit and amplified by Almagro – played an outsized role in the crisis. It formed the core of the case that opposition leaders and the media presented against Morales, which concluded in his government’s flight into exile.[fn]Ernesto Londoño, “Morales averts runoff in Bolivia, officials say, but anger and doubt remain”, The New York Times, 25 October 2019.Hide Footnote  It also informed Crisis Group’s statement at the time that “Morales reportedly permitted or orchestrated a sophisticated scheme of rigging aimed at guaranteeing him outright first-round victory”.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “Keeping Violence in Check after Bolivia’s Political Rupture”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  For its final report on 4 December, the OAS declared in an accompanying press release that there were “intentional manipulation and serious irregularities” that made it impossible to validate the results originally issued by the Bolivian electoral authorities.[fn]Final Report of the Audit of the Elections in Bolivia: Intentional Manipulation and Serious Irregularities Made it Impossible to Validate the Results”, press release, Organization of American States, 4 December 2019.Hide Footnote  What has transpired since then raises questions about those conclusions.

III. The Spotlight on the Monitors

Since the elections, the OAS’s role has attracted increased controversy.

Since the elections, the OAS’s role has attracted increased controversy. Criticism has focused on its statistical analysis of voting patterns, which purported to show that a late surge in support for Morales during the results tabulation was so improbable as to indicate rigging. Shortly after the TSE declared Morales the winner on the evening of 21 October, the OAS, using a quick count methodology to verify results, argued that the TSE’s data after the blackout differed in suspicious ways from that seen the day before.[fn]In interviews with Crisis Group, Gerardo de Icaza, director of the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation at the OAS, explained that the electoral mission compared the results of their quick count with similar exercises conducted by two local organisations: ViaCiencia and Tu Voto Cuenta, which gave the same results. That, in addition to other suspicious findings, was the basis for this initial assessment. OAS standing procedure is to not make public the results of the quick count analysis, which is regularly done in all elections they monitor. Crisis Group telephone interview, 13 July 2020. “Statement of the OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Bolivia”, Organization of American States, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Later on, in the auditors’ report, the OAS reaffirmed its initial assessment, and asserted that “the incumbent President’s outright victory was statistically unlikely and only made possible by a massive and unexplainable surge in the final 5% of the vote count”.[fn]Electoral Integrity Analysis. General Elections in the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Final Report”, Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation, Organization of American States, made public 4 December 2019.Hide Footnote Scholars of Latin America based at U.S. universities have since picked out what they identify as flaws in this argument. They acknowledge evidence of wrongdoing in the October polls but find no proof of intentional manipulation.

According to a study of the original electoral data by academics at Tulane University and the University of Pennsylvania, a “coding error led the OAS to mistakenly drop observations corresponding to the last 4.1% of the vote”. When those votes are included, the study argues, there is no abrupt jump.[fn]The OAS audit report claimed that Morales’ first-round victory was “only made possible by a massive and unexplainable surge in the final 5% of the vote count”. As evidence for this statement, the OAS published a graph in which it looked as if Morales was earning about 47 per cent of the votes coming in around 8:06pm on 20 October – and then, all of a sudden, 55 per cent of the votes coming in at 8:07pm. But the authors of the academic study claim there was no alleged jump at that moment, by which time 95 per cent of the votes had been counted. According to the paper, Morales’ vote share did not change suddenly at 8:07pm but rather increased smoothly over the course of election night. The paper’s authors allege that the OAS mistakenly excluded 4.1 per cent of votes that never made it into the preliminary results system, a claim the OAS rejects. The authors argue that including these 4.1 per cent of votes eliminates the appearance of a jump in the trend of Morales’ vote share. Nicolás Idrobo, Dorothy Kronick and Francisco Rodríguez, “Do Shifts in Late-Counted Votes Signal Fraud? Evidence from Bolivia”, Social Science Research Network, 7 June 2020.Hide Footnote  The academics also assert that the OAS’s quantitative method is ill suited for detecting this type of discontinuity, and that any jump in votes disappears when standard statistical techniques are used.[fn]Ibid. The paper also argues that the OAS used a statistical technique that artificially creates the appearance of a break in trend, and alleges that other, more appropriate statistical tools, show no discontinuity.Hide Footnote  While Morales’ vote share did increase as the night went on, the study argues that the rise is not necessarily consistent with fraud. The same trend occurred in the OAS-approved 2016 election and may be the result of rural precincts, where Morales enjoys more support, submitting tallies later, as can occur in elections worldwide. Analysts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Election Data and Science Lab ran a thousand simulations to try to predict the difference between Morales’ vote and that of Mesa using only the votes verified before the count was halted. Those studies concluded that the MAS candidate did in fact secure a lead of over 10 per cent.[fn]John Curiel and Jack R. Williams, “Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent. Our research found no reason to suspect fraud”, The Washington Post, 27 February 2020.Hide Footnote

The OAS and Secretary General Almagro defend the observers’ statistical analysis but have not publicly engaged on the substance of the discrepancies beyond pointing to other academic papers that support their findings.[fn]Bolivia: la OEA defiende su informe sobre las elecciones de 2019 y Evo reitera que fue un golpe”, Nodal, 18 June 2020. John Newman, “The OAS conclusions about the election integrity of the Bolivian election are correct”, Kenact, 29 April 2020.Hide Footnote  In a statement published on 16 June, they dismissed the critical studies as displaying “profound ignorance”.[fn]Press Release on Disinformation Campaign Regarding the Role of the OAS in the Bolivian Elections”, Organization of American States, 16 June 2020.Hide Footnote  They also went so far as to accuse The New York Times, which alongside The Washington Post carried stories on these studies, of having “a well-documented controversial history with truth in relation to dictatorships and totalitarianism”.[fn]Ibid. Curiel and Williams, “Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Finally, they note that the statistical analysis of the vote count is but one form of fraud listed by the OAS report.

There is little doubt that the election suffered from considerable malpractice.

There is little doubt that the election suffered from considerable malpractice. Although the EU only had two electoral experts on the ground, unlike the OAS’s 92-strong mission, they were in Bolivia for months before the poll. They describe an electoral system plagued by irregularities and designed to favour the MAS: “The most striking feature of the campaign was the lack of a level playing field”.[fn]Election Expert Mission Report”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The EU report detailed other concerns: scant public financing of parties’ campaigns, flaws in the electoral rolls, faulty procedures for registering candidates and the tribunal’s inaction in curbing the Morales government’s widespread misuse of state resources to benefit the ruling party.[fn]Election Expert Mission Report”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

But the conclusions that the OAS drew a day after the poll – accusations that later appeared to be backed up by statistics in the 10 November report – proved far more explosive than reports of other electoral wrongdoing. That analysis was the sole element that the mission publicly highlighted hours after the final tally had been published, at a time when the 24-hour blackout was fuelling intense suspicion of the count. In the eyes of Morales’ opponents, the findings established that his first-round victory was tantamount to an illegal seizure of power, and they took their cue from the OAS’s statements about the vote’s credibility. Luis Fernando Camacho, a right-wing leader from Santa Cruz who mobilised protests against Morales, said the OAS’s worries about the preliminary results reinforced his decision to call a general strike.[fn]Ante posible fraude, ocho departamentos acatan paro indefinido en defensa del voto”, Los Tiempos, 23 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Morales, too, from exile in Mexico soon after leaving Bolivia, pointed to this moment as a turning point: “The coup began on 21 October, after the elections, with the false accusation that there had been fraud”.[fn]Evo Morales: “Estoy dispuesto a volver a Bolivia y, para pacificar, no ser candidato””, El País, 14 November 2019.Hide Footnote

What exactly happened during the blackout remains a mystery. The EU electoral report backs the OAS in concluding that Bolivia’s electoral authorities have been unable to provide a clear explanation. An international electoral expert who was in Bolivia at the time told Crisis Group: “The TSE responded to questions about the reasons for the stoppage with a variety of unconvincing answers. They showed tragic incompetence in their handling of the results process”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, electoral expert, 23 June 2020.Hide Footnote  The OAS as well as the Panamanian company Ethical Hacking, hired to oversee the system’s integrity, also reported that an external server was being used to “manipulate the infrastructure” by rerouting preliminary electoral results, thus evading oversight. That said, a study by a left-leaning U.S. think-tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, argues that the rerouting could have been the result of mistakes made by the IT firm NEOTEC, hired to run the elections.[fn]Jake Johnston and David Rosnick, “Observing the Observers: The OAS in the 2019 Bolivian Elections”, Center for Economic and Policy Research, 10 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Nor have attempts in Bolivia to shed light on what happened borne fruit. In late 2019, Bolivia’s attorney general opened a criminal investigation of Morales for fraud.[fn]Abren proceso penal contra Evo Morales por fraude electoral en Bolivia”, CNN Español, 19 February 2020.Hide Footnote  The TSE’s new chief, Salvador Romero, has stated that he is hoping the justice system can establish if rigging took place and who was responsible.[fn]“El MAS pide ‘imparcialidad’ ante querella del TSE por fraude electoral”, Página Siete, 15 June 2020.Hide Footnote  But as yet, the investigation is still in its preliminary stages. For now, it seems hard to tell whether there was intentional fraud or just a welter of irregularities with no conspiracy behind them – the kind of anomalies that have historically plagued contests in Latin America.[fn]Arend Lijphart and Dieter Nohlen, “Electoral Systems and Electoral Reforms in Latin America”, in Arend Lijphart and Carlos Waisman (eds.), Institutional Design in New Democracies: Eastern Europe and Latin America (New York, 2018), pp. 43-58.Hide Footnote

Whatever the truth, the controversy over the OAS’s findings has cast a shadow over its already imperilled role as a credible arbiter. Given that Morales and his supporters reject the OAS’s role as observers, it will be hard for the organisation to credibly monitor October's vote.[fn]“Evo Morales rechaza a la OEA como observadora de las elecciones previstas para septiembre en Bolivia”, Europapress, 7 July 2020.Hide Footnote  More broadly, the dispute and the tone of the OAS’s response to criticism positions the organisation even more decisively on one side of Latin America’s ever more polarised politics, potentially undercutting its ability to manage crises elsewhere.[fn]Widening Latin American political divisions, above all over Venezuela, have severely undermined the effectiveness of the OAS, which has strongly supported the removal of President Nicolás Maduro from office. See Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°38, A Way Out of Latin America’s Impasse over Venezuela, 15 May 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. A Fraught Vote Looming

As a new vote looms, the legacy of the 2019 crisis risks setting the tenor of the contest, even if progress is made in ensuring a cleaner vote. Under new leadership, and with the UN’s technical support, the TSE is looking to restore faith in its neutrality and efficiency.[fn]Salvador Romero asume la presidencia del Tribunal Supremo Electoral”, Los Tiempos, 12 December 2019.Hide Footnote  But the legacy of recent tensions is poisonous, stoking both sides’ fears that partisan machinations have overrun the electoral system.

The TSE announced on 23 July that the vote would be pushed back from early September to 18 October given the rapid pace of COVID-19 contagion.[fn]Tweet by the TSE, @TSEBolivia, 2:32pm, 23 July 2020.Hide Footnote  This postponement was the second, and Evo Morales and his supporters were quick to condemn the move.[fn]Tweet by Evo Morales, @evoespueblo, 4:28pm, 23 July 2020.Hide Footnote  Hundreds of pro-MAS protesters gathered throughout the country to demand prompt elections.[fn]“Marchas, bloqueos y desacato al distanciamiento en una jornada de protestas”, Página Siete, 28 July 2020.Hide Footnote

Opposition politicians and some media outlets contend that the interim government has been exploiting the health emergency to extend its 120-day transitional mandate into nearly a year of often abrasive rule, marked by efforts to roll back some of the MAS administration’s hallmark domestic and foreign policies. The interim administration signalled early on that its rule would mark a dramatic departure from the pro-indigenous policies of the Morales government: Áñez entered the presidential office carrying a bible, police and other supporters burnt the Whiphala, a flag representing the 36 indigenous groups of Bolivia, and she appointed a cabinet with no indigenous members.[fn]During his mandate, Morales worked to separate the state from the Catholic Church in recognition of the country’s religious and cultural diversity. Indigenous people were alarmed by Áñez’s decision to carry the bible as “Bolivian political leaders have promoted the country’s Hispanic and Catholic heritage, not in addition to its indigenous history but to the exclusion of it”. “Old religious tensions resurge in Bolivia after ouster of long-time indigenous president”, The Conversation, 19 November 2019. “Gracias a Dios la biblia vuelve a palacio, dice proclamada presidenta de Bolivia”, El Universal, 12 November 2019. “Could Bolivia’s current politics be fueling indigenous discrimination?”, PBS Newshour, 25 November 2019.Hide Footnote  MAS supporters accuse the Áñez administration of intervening on issues that go beyond the interim government’s mandate, such as the rules for privatisation of state enterprises, modifications to price control mechanisms for household items, social security reform and foreign policy.[fn]For an overview of the initial policy changes embraced by Áñez, see Crisis Group EU Watch List Update, “Bolivia Plans for an Uncertain Election”, 20 January 2020; Sofía Cordero Ponce, “Bolivia: el Estado plurinacional en disputa”, Nueva Sociedad, January 2020. On 7 July, seven U.S. Democrat senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concern about “the growing number of human rights violations and curtailments of civil liberties by the interim government of Bolivia”, including its alleged use of the pandemic to curtail civil liberties. “Senadores de EE.UU. denunciaron violaciones de derechos humanos”, Télam (Argentina), 7 July 2020.Hide Footnote  Additionally, they point to decisions such as eliminating the ministry of culture and dismantling the well-established coca community control system as evidence that the interim government is reversing policies that benefitted the indigenous.[fn]Presidenta suprime tres ministerios y cierra dos embajadas”, Página Siete, 4 June 2020. Crisis Group interview, civil society representative, 28 July 2020.Hide Footnote

Still, the authorities’ fears related to the coronavirus are well founded. Despite strict confinement measures, Bolivia – still one of South America’s poorest countries despite years of economic growth under Morales – has over 71,000 COVID-19 cases.[fn]Data from Bolivia’s health ministry. See tweet by Salud Bolivia, @MinSaludBolivia, 8:27am, 28 July 2020.Hide Footnote  The virus has killed more than 2,600 people, and the health ministry expects around 130,000 cases by early September. Moreover, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) warns that across Latin America, reported mortality is “a vast underestimate of the true death toll”.[fn]Luis Felipe López-Calva, “A greater tragedy than we know: Excess mortality rates suggest that Covid-19 death toll is vastly underestimated in LAC”, UNDP Director’s Blog: Graph for Thought, 7 July 2020.Hide Footnote  Bolivia’s health system is already under immense strain, with reports of people dying in the streets of La Paz and other cities as hospitals are full.[fn]El colapso sanitario en Bolivia por la COVID deja al menos siete muertos en plena calle”, La Vanguardia, 16 June 2020.Hide Footnote  In mid-July, the police reportedly found hundreds of coronavirus victims’ bodies in the streets and homes in La Paz and another city, Santa Cruz.[fn]Salud proyecta que pico más alto de COVID-19 en Bolivia podría alcanzarse en septiembre con 130 mil casos”, Bolivian health ministry, 21 June 2020. “Bolivia elections in doubt as police finds bodies of hundreds of COVID-19 victims”, The Guardian, 22 July 2020.Hide Footnote  The virus’ accelerating spread complicates campaigning, election logistics and international observation. To make matters worse, Áñez herself, as well as the foreign minister and head of the parliament, among other high-level government and opposition figures, announced in July that they had tested positive.[fn]Bolivian foreign minister tests positive for Covid-19”, CNN, 13 July 2020.Hide Footnote

Discord in Bolivia over the 2019 crisis mirrors the political divides that course through Latin America.

Resurgent polarisation has all but erased any good-will created by the mediation of the EU, UN and Catholic Church following the 2019 violence.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List Update, “Bolivia Plans for an Uncertain Election”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Discord in Bolivia over the 2019 crisis mirrors the political divides that course through Latin America. The left insists that the alleged coup was part of a continent-wide effort to eject progressive movements from power.[fn]Atilio Borón,“El golpe en Bolivia: cinco lecciones”, Cuba Debate, 10 November 2019.Hide Footnote  Indeed, Morales’ allies such as the Grupo de Puebla demand that he be reinstated, a plea that all his opponents dismiss and not even the MAS itself sees as realistic or opportune, given that the agreement among all parties to convene a new presidential election was the cornerstone of efforts to curb unrest in late 2019.[fn]Grupo de Puebla brings together leftist political leaders, including nine former presidents, and well-known intellectuals, to build a progressive political and economic agenda for Latin America and beyond. Several senior international officials consulted for this briefing, however, agree that it would be unwise to revisit that pact. Crisis Group interviews, senior officials at multilateral organisations, 17 June and 23 June 2020.Hide Footnote  On the right, many believe that the election was rigged to favour Morales because Mesa would likely have defeated him had the contest gone to a run-off.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior officials at multilateral organisations, 17 June and 23 June 2020.Hide Footnote

The MAS wants elections as soon as possible, particularly since opinion polls show their candidate, Luis Arce, who served as Morales’ economy minister, winning in the first round.[fn]Sondeo; Luis Arce, delfín de Morales, ganaría balotaje en Bolivia”, Deutsche Welle, 16 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Many Bolivians who opposed Morales’ bid to entrench himself in power have been alarmed by the interim government’s revanchist rhetoric and racist remarks, and might again vote for the MAS.[fn]“Many people were unhappy with the way Evo ignored the referendum results and used the courts for re-election, and voted against him in October. But the interim government has shown they are in full revenge mode, especially against public servants. A lot of MAS supporters have been fired. That, and the shows of racism have raised red flags for moderates, who are now very concerned about Áñez trying to stay in power by using the pandemic”. Crisis Group interview, international official, 12 June 2020. Crisis Group EU Watch List Update, “Bolivia Plans for an Uncertain Election”, op. cit. See also “Jeanine Áñez pidió evitar el retorno de los ‘salvajes’ en Bolivia y Evo Morales salió al cruce: “La usurpadora ratifica su racismo””, Clarín, 4 January 2020.Hide Footnote  As for Mesa, he hopes to galvanise those sectors of Bolivia who want the MAS out but do not align with Áñez and her allies’ hardline views. According to one analyst: “Mesa would be willing to work with the MAS. He is not thinking about dismantling everything Evo did, which others are”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bolivian political analyst, 25 June 2020.Hide Footnote  That said, if Arce’s competitors – there are currently eight presidential candidates, including Mesa – do not coalesce behind one ticket before the polls, a first-round victory for Morales’ party will be more probable, and could provoke other parties’ supporters to return to the streets, particularly if they suspect foul play.

There are other challenges, too. Romero, whom Áñez herself appointed in December, is one of few officials who had, until recently, garnered support from across the political spectrum. But as time passes and polarisation deepens, the parties have reverted to accusing him of playing political games. First, the interim administration and its allies alleged that the TSE was favouring Morales’ party.[fn]El riesgoso ataque contra el TSE”, Página Siete, 21 June 2020.Hide Footnote  Now, after the second vote postponement, the MAS accuses Romero of overreach and attempting to extend the interim administration’s term.[fn]Tweet by Evo Morales, @evoespueblo, 2:18pm, 23 July 2020.Hide Footnote  Moreover, an international official advising the TSE worries that with polarisation deepening, the “lack of coordination between the government and local mayors and governors from MAS” will complicate even further the task of holding the polls amid the pandemic.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 23 June 2020.Hide Footnote

While a fair election will not entirely mend Bolivia’s polarised politics, a controversial vote could be devastating.

While a fair election will not entirely mend Bolivia’s polarised politics, a controversial vote could be devastating. The cleavage between the indigenous majority and the minority of European descent is a stark fact of Bolivian society and politics, reflected in the very different composition and credos of Morales’ left-wing movement and Áñez’s interim government. While the MAS has given the state a prominent role in fighting poverty and undoing discrimination against the indigenous majority, Áñez and her allies represent a return to liberal economic policies that favour minimal state intervention. Electoral politics offer no guarantee that these underlying differences can be patched up. But a contentious election, with one side rejecting results, might well see a repeat of 2019’s protests and violence.

V. Ensuring a Clean Poll

International actors can help reduce risks, particularly with an eye to what went wrong in 2019.

The threat of a new cycle of unrest hovers over Bolivia, but international actors such as the EU, the UN, foreign donors and neighbouring governments, including those of Argentina and Peru, can help reduce risks, particularly with an eye to what went wrong in 2019. First, they should continue to give public, technical and financial backing to TSE President Romero and his team. Expressing trust in him could help counter efforts to discredit him and thus cast a pall on the elections. Indeed, the events of October were the product not merely of mistakes or misdeeds on election day. In the words of an electoral expert, “There was an irrevocable lack of trust” in the integrity of the whole process, which was tainted from the start by Morales’ decision to ignore the 2016 referendum results.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, electoral expert, 23 June 2020.Hide Footnote

Secondly, international actors should intensify electoral monitoring and support for the next Bolivian polls, to the extent they can amid the pandemic. The OAS’s loss of credibility with some Bolivian political forces makes it all the more important that others step up. COVID-19 permitting, the EU should ensure that the observer mission it plans to send is robust and deploys as early as possible. The Carter Center is planning an expert mission, which would probably operate remotely unless health conditions change.[fn]As of writing, international flights in Bolivia have been cancelled until 31 August.Hide Footnote  The mission will include a team of experts charged with producing a desk review, an examination of digital threats to a fair campaign and an evaluation of compliance with norms on online political campaigning.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, electoral expert, 15 July 2020.Hide Footnote  Technical input from the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organisms, which has offered to send a mission to advise on the October elections and can work closely with the TSE, might help restore the faith that had previously existed in the electoral system.[fn]The Union brings together the electoral authorities of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay and Venezuela. Its aim is to foster an exchange of information and best practices among members. UNIORE regularly sends electoral observation missions to its member states to provide recommendations to its partner organisations. Crisis Group telephone interview, UN official, 16 July 2020.Hide Footnote

Regardless of their origin, electoral experts should work closely with national and local authorities to identify and, as far as possible, resolve the issues that plagued the October elections. Notably, the TSE should set clear procedures for tallying results and do so as transparently as possible, with access given to the different candidates’ representatives. All observers should do their best to understand the limitations of the electoral system and differentiate between deliberate rigging and the mistakes often inherent in election administration. To the extent possible, they should ensure that their public statements do not play into political disputes and are grounded in technical assessments.

Thirdly, even if the poll is reasonably clean, a concerted diplomatic strategy will be essential. It should aim to ensure that at least the main political forces, namely Morales’ MAS and Mesa’s Civic Community, accept the results or, if they perceive that the polls were improperly conducted, pursue grievances through the courts and do their utmost to keep supporters off the streets. Diplomats in Bolivia should also ask the interim president’s party, the Democrat Social Movement, and other smaller right-wing groups such as Creemos to pledge the same. After their successful mediation of the post-electoral crisis of 2019, the EU, UN and Catholic Church should take the lead in a campaign to ensure that the core political contenders make public commitments along these lines. Likewise, should health conditions make it impossible to hold a credible poll even in October, the interim authorities should postpone balloting again only after those same mediators have secured the main parties’ agreement.

Despite Bolivia’s deep historical fissures, the country has repeatedly avoided major escalations in conflict and the levels of violence that others in the region have experienced. Whichever party wins the election, it is critical that the new government actively work on building bridges with the opposition and avoid the polarising policies that have marked the tenures of both the Morales government in the years immediately preceding the 2019 crisis and the Áñez government since then. The next presidential elections could be an opportunity for Bolivia to start the long task of healing the wounds from that crisis and, with its international partners’ backing, plotting a peaceful way forward.

Bogotá/New York/Brussels, 31 July 2020

Appendix A: Map of Bolivia


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