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Bolivia goes to the polls: chance for peace, or spark for more conflict?

. Oct 17, 2020
bolivia elections coup evo morales carlos mesa Protester kneels in front of the Supreme Electoral Court, in La Paz. Photo: Radoslaw Czajkowski/Shutterstock

In late July, with coronavirus cases spiraling out of control in Bolivia, the country’s electoral officials moved to postpone the 2020 general elections for a third and final time. Now, on Sunday, Bolivians will finally go to the polls with the hope of drawing a line under what has been a catastrophic 12 months for the country’s democracy.

The election date of October 18 is important for multiple reasons: first, it represents relief for the arrival of a vote that many Bolivians feared would never come, but it also lands exactly 365 days after former President Evo Morales was re-elected to a fourth term as head of state, setting off a chain reaction of events that constituted one of the most turbulent years for Bolivia in recent memory.

</p> <p>In the days that followed President Morales&#8217; election in October 2019, Bolivia was the stage of 19 days of <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/08/02/2019-coup-bolivia-elon-musk-lithium-resources/">civil unrest</a>, with demonstrations and violent riots in several parts of the country, claiming that the vote had been rigged. At least 30 people were killed in clashes between opposing protesters.</p> <p>The claims of foul play stemmed from the peculiar events of the evening of October 20, as real-time vote counting showed Mr. Morales failing to obtain a large enough advantage to carry the election in the first round. This live count was then surprisingly interrupted at 7:40 pm, with 83 percent of ballots counted. When it reopened, 95 percent of votes had been calculated, and Evo Morales had increased his lead, awarding him the first-round victory.</p> <p>Under pressure, President Morales asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct an audit on the vote, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bolivia-election-foreign-minister/bolivian-government-seeks-election-audit-vows-to-respect-result-idUSKBN1X12FJ">promising to respect their findings </a>and schedule new elections if necessary. Indeed, the OAS findings — <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/world/americas/bolivia-election-evo-morales.html">which have since been called into question</a> — endorsed suspicions of fraud and Evo Morales announced that another vote would be scheduled.</p> <p>However, one year on, this new election has yet to take place. Buoyed by the increasing pressure on the Morales government, the Bolivian Armed Forces stepped in and <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2019/11/13/evo-morales-bolivia-coup/">&#8220;suggested&#8221; the president&#8217;s immediate resignation</a>. Evo Morales stepped down and fled to Mexico for fears of arrest, and a right-wing caretaker government was parachuted into power, led by Senator Jeanine Áñez.</p> <h2>The Áñez disaster</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/shutterstock_1787973617.jpg" alt="Anti-Evo Morales protest in Bolivia" class="wp-image-51277" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/shutterstock_1787973617.jpg 1000w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/shutterstock_1787973617-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/shutterstock_1787973617-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/shutterstock_1787973617-610x407.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/shutterstock_1787973617-600x400.jpg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Anti-Evo Morales protest in November 2019. Photo: Radoslaw Czajkowski/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>Despite taking the presidential sash with the sole promise of merely keeping the seat warm until fresh elections took place, Ms. Áñez&#8217;s time in charge has been a fiasco. Particularly with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;It is important to note that the program of the far-right government was fractured internally and was never properly <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/08/26/coronavirus-in-latin-america-a-tale-of-failed-leadership-and-inequality/">carried out due to the pandemic</a>,&#8221; notes Marília Closs, a doctoral student and researcher at the Nucleus for Studies in Social Theory and Latin America and the South American Political Observatory (OPSA).</p> <p>Indeed, Ms. Áñez reaches the end of her interim term with desperately low approval ratings, partly due to her handling of the Covid-19 crisis. &#8220;As her government was strictly aligned with the police and the armed forces, the response to the pandemic was a military one, not tackled from a public health perspective,&#8221; adds Ms. Closs.</p> <p>Besides Covid-19, Ms. Áñez also aimed to push through a labor reform, dismantling the welfare state set up by the Evo Morales governments, which was poorly received by large parts of the population. A brazen attempt to run herself in Sunday&#8217;s election — going against what she promised Bolivia upon stepping in as president — was short-lived.</p> <h2>The leading candidates in Bolivia</h2> <p>Indeed, though she was initially framed as a stop-gap president, the figure of Jeanine Áñez looms large over Sunday&#8217;s vote, even if her name is no longer on the ballot. The frontrunner is Luis Arce of Evo Morales&#8217; Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, which Ms. Áñez attempted to have banned from the election. Indeed, much of Ms. Áñez&#8217;s actions in government have served to galvanize support for MAS, with latest opinion polls showing Mr. Arce well in the lead — albeit below the threshold needed for a first-round victory.</p> <p>This week, indigenous leader Felipe &#8220;Mallku&#8221; Quispe — a long time critic of Evo Morales and MAS from the left — publicly endorsed Mr. Arce&#8217;s candidacy, pledging his support to &#8220;the only indigenous candidate&#8221; on the ballot, Mr. Arce&#8217;s running mate David Choquehuanca.</p> <p>Ms. Closs stresses the significance of Mallku&#8217;s support to the MAS ticket. &#8220;Indeed, the support behind MAS now seems more cohesive than it was [in 2019], some of their mobilization has been the biggest they have managed in the last decade.&#8221;</p> <p>Second in the polls and hopeful of a win in a <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2019/11/11/understanding-vacuum-power-bolivia/">potential runoff election</a> is center-right candidate Carlos Mesa, who lost out to Evo Morales in last year&#8217;s vote. As a traditional well-heeled Latin American neoliberal, Mr. Mesa is banking that anti-MAS sentiment will be large enough to stop Luis Arce winning in the first round, before rallying around his candidacy in a dead heat situation.</p> <p>&#8220;Carlos Mesa has been the most important opposition figure ever since the 2016 referendum on term limits for presidents [which Evo Morales lost, but ignored the result]. From that moment, MAS detractors have largely rallied around him,&#8221; Ms. Closs explains. While standing on a typically neoliberal platform of privatizations, Mr. Mesa has also adopted a somewhat conciliatory profile, which could gain purchase among voters keen on putting an end to the country&#8217;s constant unrest.</p> <p>A major thorn in his side, however, is the &#8220;Bolivian Bolsonaro&#8221; Luis Fernando Camacho, the fervent ultra-conservative candidate who is fueling an adversarial far-right campaign and splitting the anti-MAS vote in the process.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Camacho gained international notoriety for leading protests against Evo Morales last year, culminating in the president&#8217;s ousting. In the lead up to Mr. Morales&#8217; resignation under duress, he broke into the presidential palace and ceremoniously placed a bible atop the Bolivian flag, declaring that &#8220;Bolivia belongs to Christ&#8221; and &#8220;[Andean indigenous goddess] Pachamama will not return to the government.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <h2>Breathing room, or more tension?</h2> <p>Indeed, the major question is not who comes out on top once the votes are counted, but how the losing party will react. &#8220;The chances of this ending badly are significant, both sides are calling foul play on the other,&#8221; says Ms. Closs. The overwhelming analysis is that were MAS to win in Sunday&#8217;s first round — which is certainly a <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2019/11/11/understanding-vacuum-power-bolivia/">possibility given recent polls</a> — social unrest will ensue. Far-right paramilitary groups have already promised to take to the streets should that occur, regardless of what independent electoral observers from the European Union or OAS conclude.</p> <p>In wealthy neighborhoods of the capital La Paz, people have formed lengthy queues at supermarkets and gas stations, fearing another outbreak of violence after this weekend&#8217;s results.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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