Chaos grips Bolivia as votes are counted, president ignores early results, and opposition smells fraud

Also on this site: Analysis of how the electoral results so far: “Understanding the end of the Evo Morales majority.”

Over six million Bolivian voters cast their ballots in peace on Sunday, October 20, but the calm did not last through the next day. As of Sunday night, all indications—including both the official electoral authorities’ “rapid count” (Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares; TREP) and private quick counts by ViaCiencia and Tu Voto Cuenta all coincided in showing a strong showing by challenger Carlos Mesa, and a narrow 4 to 7% lead by incumbent president Evo Morales, whose vote count stood at 45%, according to TREP. Unless Morales pulled ahead to a 10% lead, he would face a second round runoff against Mesa in mid-December.

Then, at 7:40pm local time on Sunday, the TREP rapid count stopped updating.

This was the first post-electoral sign of irregularity, and technically it only affected a non-decisive preliminary count, but it reached a Bolivian public that was on edge and concerned with the possibility of fraud or electoral manipulation. The president’s entire 2019 campaign was conducted in defiance of the majority vote that denied him constitutional authorization for a fourth term on 21 February 2016. Ultimately, permission to run was granted by the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal in December 2017. Periodic protests have urged “defense of the results of 21F,” although without impact. In the final weeks before this year’s vote, massive public meetings—called cabildos—were held in Santa Cruz, La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and Tarija, all pledging to defend democracy in the event of manipulation or fraud, and upholding 21F. That portion of the Bolivian public opposed to Morales was watching suspiciously.

On Sunday night, Carlos Mesa gave a not-quite-victory speech celebrating the runoff as a major accomplishment. President Evo Morales also gave a victory speech, claiming an unprecedented fourth victory at the polls (while true on its face, this had never previously been either attempted or permitted by law), and expressing confidence that late breaking rural voters would hand him a first-round victory. The publicly funded newspaper Cambio, whose editorial line is partisan advocacy of Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP), took its cues from Morales and proclaimed outright victory the next morning. Communication Minister Manuel Canelas joined in expressing “We are quite confident in the final result of the count.” To suspicious ears, this all sounded like foreshadowing for a manipulated result.

On Monday, the official count results trickled in, reaching 50% by late afternoon. By Tuesday morning, the Plurinational Electoral Organ was reporting 73% of the votes had been counted. These official results showed a Mesa lead on Monday, and a very narrow race as of this writing: at 7:43am, Morales has a 42.30% to 41.74% edge.

The central story of Monday, however, was not these vote totals, but the unraveling confidence in electoral authorities and nationwide mobilizations by critics of the government. By mid-day, Carlos Mesa, civic committees, and the National Coordination in Defense of Democracy were all calling for vigils at the sites of departmental vote counts. Protesters were also outraged by discoveries of caches of ballots marked in advance for the MAS-IPSP in La Paz and Potosí. By evening these became large, and sometimes chaotic protests. In some places, these protests faced off with MAS-IPSP partisans. In Sucre, capital of Chuquisaca department, enraged protesters set fire to a series of offices, including the Departmental Electoral Tribunal, MAS-IPSP campaign offices, and the campesino federation. Confrontations and fires were also reported in Potosí and Tarija. By the end of the night, electoral authorities had suspended vote counts in four departments—La Paz, Potosí, Chuquisaca, and Cochabamba—citing the protests as justification.

The events of Monday night were driven not by these slow-moving official results, but by sudden and unexpected changes to the TREP rapid count. After a 23-hour pause, the rapid count website roared back into action. Shocking the country, TREP soon read: Evo Morales 46,86% — Carlos Mesa 36,72%, a 10.14% margin that would mean no runoff. This switch, apparent official endorsement of a first-round victory for Morales, was the spark that turned the protests from guarding against irregularities mid-day to protesting or resisting fraud by nightfall.

Ironically, the protests themselves became a (sometimes reasonable) pretext for pausing parts of the official count. And the damage to vote counting installations and ballots themselves is likely to complicate the possibility of independently auditing the results. In a further irony, the TREP rapid count tilted away from Morales last night. By 11pm, it read Evo 46.40% — Mesa 37.07%, close enough for a runoff.

Right now, the rapid count is a hair’s breadth from requiring a runoff, the official count is partial, but it indicates a runoff may be needed. However, doubt, tension, and mobilization are all working together in a feedback loop that could lead to suspended vote counting. Should the Plurinational Electoral Organ announce anything other than a runoff, the opposition is unlikely to accept the results. Years of growing distrust and the lack of trusted and fully independent electoral and judicial institutions have led the Bolivian government to the brink of a serious legitimacy crisis.

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