Bolivia votes in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday – 12 months after controversial polls sparked mass protests and the country’s controversial left-wing leader Evo Morales. Jowharlooks back on the turbulent year of the Latin American country.
The frontrunners are centrist ex-president Carlos Mesa and Luis Arce, Morales’ anointed successor and candidate for his left-wing MAS party. Voting data predicts that Arce will reach the top in the first round on October 18 – but without the 40 percent turnout and 10-point lead required to avoid run-off on November 29.
Analysts predicted that Mesa triumphed in the second round, driven over the line by the “anything but MAS” slogan popular with large sections of Bolivia’s middle class. The five other candidates, all of whom are behind the polls, are all expected to support Mesa.
“While the margin will be tight, we remain of the view that Mesa will take the race to a downhill run on November 29, which he would be favored to win,” said Filipe Gruppelli Carvalho, Bolivia analyst at consulting firm Eurasia Group. to Agence France- Press.
‘Clear manipulation’ of last year’s vote
These presidential elections come a year after Morales claimed a fourth term in October 2019. Fears of a stolen vote arose when officials suddenly stopped releasing results hours after the polls closed. The count put Morales ahead of Mesa, his closest challenger, but far outside the lead he needed to avoid another round. A day later, the Electoral Commission suddenly sent out new numbers showing Morales only 0.7 points shy of the threshold to win the first round.
Mesa accused Morales of being involved in “monumental fraud”. Morales accused Mesa of using foreign aid to carry out a coup. Nationwide protests erupted in which anti-government protesters stormed two state media, accusing them of being in Morale’s pocket. An audit conducted by the Organization of American States on November 9 revealed “clear manipulation” of the count.
Morales withdrew the next day, claiming political asylum in Mexico as clashes between his supporters and opponents continued to rage in the streets of the capital, La Paz. Now residing in Argentina, the former president continues to accuse “putschists” of illegally kyboshing his re-election.
The former president is no stranger to controversy. In a 2016 referendum, Bolivians narrowly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to run for a fourth term. The Supreme Court overturned this vote in a fiercely contested decision and ruled that the Constitution violated Morales’ human rights by blocking him from seeking another term. “Morales had firm control over the state’s most important institutions, and it was pretty clear that manipulation was taking place,” said Colin Harding, director of the specialty publication Latinform.
The referendum echoed the significant international reputation Morales had built since becoming Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006. The country’s GDP expanded by more than 4 percent a year during its thirteen-year reign as the resource-rich nation reaped a global commodity boom. “Morales really benefited from beneficial economic conditions; high commodity prices helped a lot, ”Harding noted. At the same time, he continued, Maduro’s “economic policy was not nearly as radical as his rhetoric, and he did well to attract many foreign investment”.
‘Anez really did not help’
Shortly after Morales’ expulsion, it was his right-wing opponents who were accused of an illegal coup. Jeanine Anez, a Conservative Vice President of the Senate, declared herself acting president on November 13th. Anez was fifth in line, but those above her had gone down – although some Morales loyalists then tried to cancel their resignation. She joined despite the lack of parliamentary quorum caused by the boycott of the MAS parliamentarians by the vote on her appointment.
The day after joining, Anez announced that there were elections, without specifying a date. She added that Morales would be expelled because of his constitutional decision to stand for a fourth term. Demonstrations erupted over the following weeks, this time as Morales supporters gathered to demand Anez’s resignation. The deadly protests prompted Bolivia’s influential Catholic Church to demand that the two sides meet for talks.
In December, Bolivian prosecutors filed charges against the fugitive Morales over “rebellion” and “terrorism” and accused him of ordering his supporters to use street violence. Later that month, Morales ‘then-host Mexico accused Bolivia of “intimidating” embassy staff working in La Paz after the Mexican government granted diplomatic protection to nine of Morales’ former ministers facing criminal charges.
The former colonial power Spain was captured in imbroglio when its diplomats visited the residence of the Mexican ambassador in La Paz, accompanied by masked men. The Bolivian government expelled two Spanish diplomats and the Mexican ambassador after accusing Spain of trying to help the nine ex-ministers flee the country.
When Anez took office in November, she said she was not interested in running for president in the upcoming election. In early January, she appointed a date for the polls: May 3. Later that month, she rejected her earlier statement and announced her candidacy. Anez’s communications minister Roxana Lizarraga withdrew, saying she had “lost sight of her goals” and had “begun to fall into the same evil” as her predecessor Morales. Hours later, Anez asked all his ministers to resign.
“Anez really didn’t help things,” Harding said. “She was a vague politician who quickly emerged at the height of the reign, who found that she preferred it there and did not want to return to obscurity.”
Then hit the coronavirus. Anez introduced a two-week closure on March 21 – and announced the postponement of the election in May to September 6. Covid-19 hit Bolivia relatively hard. Countries have recorded more than 8,000 deaths and about 137,000 cases out of a population of 11.6 million people – due to a lack of tests, protective equipment and intensive care units, with what has been an uncertain health system since Morales’ time.
Anez announced that she had tested positive with seven of her ministers in early July. Two weeks later, her government announced another election delay, this time until October 18. This provoked a further round of protests in which Morales supporters blocked roads across Bolivia. The government said this caused the deaths of at least 30 people by preventing oxygen supply to hospitals. Anez could not improve his popularity rating in the polls during this period. Therefore, she announced her withdrawal from the presidential election on September 18th.
Sunday’s polls will be followed closely for any signs of inaccuracy. On Friday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on all actors involved in the election to ensure a fair and peaceful vote – adding that the election “represents an opportunity to really move forward on social and economic fronts and to abolish the extreme polarization that has plagued Bolivia for the past few years ”.