Bolivian Ballot Boxes Are Burning

Bolivian Ballot Boxes Are Burning

A fraught standoff between incumbent Evo Morales and his centrist opponent Carlos Mesa reveals deep popular mistrust in the Bolivian democratic process.


Ever since Bolivia’s presidential elections were held last Sunday, the country has been on a razor’s edge.

After an unusually protracted vote-counting process, Bolivian election authorities deemed Evo Morales the victor on Thursday, extending the iconic leftist president’s tenure for a fourth term.

But the announcement has been overshadowed by massive protests, street fights, and strikes in towns and cities across the country, prompted by strange irregularities in the vote-count operation that have been perceived by critics as a cover for fraudulent behavior.

More than a dozen Bolivians in several cities reported an atmosphere of extreme tension and anger rippling through the nation because of suspicion of government misconduct. “After the elections, there was absolute chaos. I have never seen elections like this before, never,” N.W. Villanueva, a 36-year-old progressive activist based in the capital, La Paz, told me over the phone.

Complicating things further, rioters have set fire to buildings run by the country’s electoral tribunal, creating concerns about lost votes.

The second-place finisher in the race, centrist Carlos Mesa, has denounced the results as fraudulent and called for “permanent mobilizations” nationwide to force the government to hold a second round of elections. “The only way that the Bolivians can solve social unrest is going to a second round to finalize these elections as the law says, and as the European Union and the Organization of American States recommend,” Gustavo Pedraza, Mesa’s vice presidential candidate, told me.

The OAS has called for Bolivia to wait until the completion of its audit of the votes before announcing the results as legitimate, and has also recommended that Morales and Mesa enter a second, runoff round.

Political analysts say that despite the emergence of serious questions about the electoral process, there is currently no compelling evidence that the Morales administration committed fraud. “It’s not clear yet if there was fraud or if it was a very messy or mismanaged process,” Calla Hummel, a political scientist at the University of Miami, who is currently based in La Paz, told me. Three other experts I spoke to echoed this position of uncertainty.

The bigger issue, however, is that many Bolivians feel Morales’s decision to run in the first place was an act of antidemocratic fraud. Despite losing a referendum in 2016 over extending constitutional term limits, he chose to run anyway, after getting sign-off from a politically sympathetic court. He’s been in power for almost 14 years—and if he does ultimately stay on for another term, he will have spent about two decades as president.

“Even if this fraud thing falls apart, I don’t know if people who are protesting against the results will accept the results, because there’s so much mistrust in…the whole electoral process,” Jorge Derpic, a sociologist at the University of Georgia, told me.

Most of the anxiety about cheating in this election comes down to an inexplicable pause in the preliminary vote count, based on exit polls. On Sunday night, the initial results from the preliminary vote count showed Morales leading Mesa by 7 points: Morales came in at 45 percent of the vote, and Mesa had 38 percent. Mesa saw this as a win of sorts, because under Bolivian law, victors need to lead by 10 points to avoid a runoff election. Since Morales had failed to reach that threshold, Mesa thought he’d get a one-on-one shot at Morales (there were nine candidates in the first round).

Morales on the other hand, claimed that his own victory was inevitable because his base is in rural areas of the country, whose votes get counted later. But that night, the preliminary count was suspended without any warning or clear initial explanation. It took almost 24 hours for the electoral tribunal to update its preliminary results—and when they came in, Morales’s lead had widened to just a hair over 10 percent.

In other words, the minimum requirement to avoid a runoff and win outright.

While it’s unclear what happened during the pause, the suspension caused uproar. “According to preliminary reports from election monitors, the process itself appeared largely transparent and they saw no evidence of fraud,” Linda Farthing wrote in a report for the North American Congress on Latin America. But ultimately the fact that the freeze was unannounced concerned election monitors from the OAS and the European Union. The EU said on Tuesday that “the unexpected interruption” had “sparked serious concerns.”

There were more problems still. The vice president of the electoral tribunal, Antonio Costas, resigned and slammed the organization’s decision to suspend the updating of preliminary results as a “foolish” maneuver that discredited the process. And opposition supporters have set fire to vote-counting centers in several cities, which analysts say may be an attempt at sowing chaos to force a second round of voting. “The fact that pro-Mesa protesters have set fire to electoral offices is striking, to say the least, and undermines their claims to be only focused on getting the vote count right,” Gabriel Hetland, a political sociologist at the University of Albany, told me.

The bad faith of some parts of the opposition against Morales is concerning to observers both within Morales’s party and outside it. “My perception is that there has been a narrative of fraud prepared [by the opposition] well before the elections,” a former government research officer told me. “The [electoral tribunal] did a terrible job and created many doubts and suspicions, so the fraud narrative succeeded.”

The determination of whether, during the suspension of the vote count or in attempts to recover ballots from damaged polling centers, fraud was committed is ultimately contingent upon clear evidence that’s verifiable by a third party. So far, no such evidence has emerged, in the eyes of expert observers. Jorge Derpic says the claims Mesa has presented about fraud are “plausible,” but that “somebody would have to look into the actual evidence to validate that Mesa lost 109,000 votes as he claims.” Without evidence of wrongdoing, there remains a possibility that the electoral tribunal’s problems with reporting numbers stem primarily from terrible management and communication with the press. The official results themselves are at least not surprising given Morales’s consistent lead in the polls leading up to the race, experts say.

The Morales administration has invited the OAS to conduct an audit of the official final vote count, which the OAS has agreed to, and the United Nations has backed. (According to the official vote count, with 99 percent of the ballots in, Morales is at 47.07 percent and Mesa is at 36.5 percent.)

But for the Mesa-led opposition, an audit is not enough. They want there to be a runoff round, in accordance with earlier recommendations from the EU and OAS, because they believe an audit won’t go far enough in determining if fraud occurred.

Besides fraud, skepticism about the results can be traced back to Morales’s 2016 referendum: He invited mistrust when he defied the results and decided to run again. Regardless of what exactly has transpired in this messy election, the legitimacy of the overall democratic process—and Morales’s own integrity—has been tainted.

The question now is how far Morales will go in the quest to maintain power. If he opens up the electoral process to rigorous outside scrutiny, and allows for serious investigation of any credible allegations of fraud that surface, democratic norms could remain somewhat intact. But if he responds with secrecy and strong-arm tactics, then he will set a precedent for a more authoritarian Bolivia that likely will outlast his time in office.

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