Bolivia postpones elections after Áñez decrees a “total quarantine”

The Bolivian government of interim president Jeanine Áñez has decreed a sweeping “total quarantine” for 14 days to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and halt a small, but significant outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. (Prior coverage of COVID-19 in Bolivia|Wikipedia) There are just 19 cases confirmed in Bolivia, with known community transmission in urban Oruro and the municipality of Porongo, both of which were already under local quarantine measures. Nonetheless, municipal and departmental authorities, legislators, and presidential candidates had all called for a total quarantine in the past few days. The fourteen-day emergency restrictions immediately prompted electoral authorities to postpone the highly anticipated general election, previously scheduled for May 3.

The quarantine measures mandate Bolivians to stay in their homes except for trips for work, groceries, and medical care; shorten the working and shopping day; and suspend public transport. It enters into force at 12am on Sunday, March 22, just hours after being announced. Bolivians are encouraged to provision themselves today, but markets will remain open for the mornings under the quarantine.

After Áñez decreed the national quarantine, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) suspends electoral preparations for 14 days, calls on all parties to agree on a new date for general elections, previously set for May 3. In recent days, six political parties supported postponing elections, but the largest, but Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP opposed any delay. Both calculation are in part political, since the MAS-IPSP is leading in the polls and the Bolivian political Right has failed to consolidate around a single candidate.

The Tribunal had little choice but to propose some delay since the proposed quarantine will interfere with pre-election preparations, even if it ends on schedule on April 5. The Tribunal’s statement s very clear in seeking consent from the legislative branch, led by a MAS-IPSP majority for a new election date. It also points out the central and troubling challenge: “to resist the threat of the pandemic and to also organize a clean and transparent electoral process, which will reflect precisely the will of the citizenry and will permit the formation of a legitimate government.”

It remains to be seen whether Áñez decision was necessary or precipitous, and whether the quarantine will further militarization and political divisions within the country or allow Bolivians to supplant them. The fractures opened up during the 2019 political crisis remain gaping, as does the absence of an elected government. There are clearly signs of both a cross-party willingness to cooperate against the coronavirus, as evidenced by recent agreements in El Alto and the Chapare, as well as clear signs of political opportunism. As with the rest of the world, much also depends on whether or not the coronavirus spreads out of control over the next two weeks.

Top image: President Jeanine Áñez at the repurposed anti-imperialist military school, rapidly converted as a COVID-19 isolation site. From @JeanineAnez on Twitter.

Why I’m endorsing Bernie Sanders

I wake up and we are in the opening act of a national public health crisis that could shutter every institution for weeks or months, that the global financial markets are tripping towards meltdown, and that a leading presidential candidate, Joe Biden thinks that he can bring us “back to normal” by appointing JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to run the treasury department. By nightfall, Biden vows to veto Medicare for All if an inspired Congress were to pass it and send it to his desk.

Our times are not normal. Our time, right now, is about rising to the scale of the problems we confront. Those problems were started by keeping things on the normal track and denying the urgency of crises: decades of blinders on climate change and rising inequality, a decade of Wall Street deregulation before the 2008 crash, tear gas and water cannons (instead of student debt relief and restructuring) to confront the challenge of Occupy, failing to achieve the moral and social transformations called for by #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

For priceless weeks, the current government has worn blinders on the coronavirus, building on the quiet acceptance of an epidemic of drug overdose deaths fueled by opioid addiction. We live in society where massive death is a tragedy when it happens to the powerless and a crisis only when it happens to the powerful, but now confront a pathogen that hits both. On this last, we need a well-funded epidemic response effort last year, guaranteed paid sick leave and vacation time today, and universal health care this month.

More broadly, we need a 2020 campaign that is as visionary and hopeful as Obama in 2008, but more committed to fundamental change in the aftermath. Bernie Sanders, working with grassroots movements, is building that campaign.

In my estimation, what is most interesting about the Bernie Sanders campaign is the attempt to build lasting ties with external movements as well as mechanisms to activate supporters to organize one another. Long-time community and labor organizers I know have been impressed by his willingness to show up for their issues and walk their picket lines. Sanders proposed in launching his 2020 campaign that “the essence of my politics … is that we need an ongoing grassroots movement of millions of people to pressure Congress, to pressure the corporate establishment. so that we can bring about the changes that this country desperately needs. So that’s why I have said that I will not only be commander-in-chief, I’m going to be organizer-in-chief.” Like changes in other arenas, this mass activation will require a change in culture, and the Sanders campaign has projected some of its image-making efforts towards spreading the very concept of solidarity, and pushing Sanders himself to the side in favor of a ”Not Me. Us.” vision of movement-driven campaigning.

Winning transformative change will require continued grassroots pressure, but the 2020 election provides an invaluable opportunity to choose who is on the other side of the table. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have shown they would be adversaries or obstacles to change in that role. Now is the time to stand with Bernie Sanders to make the work of changing our society that much easier.

A word to Warren supporters

Elizabeth Warren’s run for the presidency did so much to concretize progressive left policy and also to draw a lot of great movement-generated ideas into the space of the election. She was an invaluable symbol of women stepping up to the challenges leadership and a reminder of the barriers women face when daring to lead.

Especially, professional women who deeply identified with Warren’s trajectory as someone who had to project ultracompetence and endure personal sexism just to get the job. I see you. And I know something of how that feels in your professional life.

I won’t ask you to not emotionally project your experiences into political candidates. I know from experience that despite my many political differences from and skepticism of Obama, I took his 2008 run personally in the end.

I believe it’s basically a random fact of history (not to mention James Comey’s bad judgement) that a biracial Black man became president but a woman has not, but I also know that one’s identity being a treated as an electoral liability sucks.

Warren’s prolific plan production was part of a mutually beneficial period of campaigning that strengthened both Warren and Sanders’ platforms. Her wealth tax proposal raises the bar for what is possible and what could be funded. Sanders had to rush to craft his own detailed plans for things that were platform points in 2016. Running in a shared lane forced both to runner faster and further. And by not being alone they broadened the sense of what was possible. If you like Warren’s plans, go read Bernie’s platform.

Today the best chance for a progressive agenda in 2021 is Sanders in the White House and Warren leading the Senate. If Warren’s case that she could be a great author of legislation and builder of coalitions is true, then wonderful. We will need that to implement any of these visions. (Just as we would need a Senator Sanders actively working with a President Warren had she made it to the White House.)

In terms of American lives that could be saved by policy changes, the difference between Sanders or Warren and Biden is significantly greater than between Biden and Trump. So I look forward to working together. Now more than ever.

Collective Endorsements Worth Reading

100+ Black Writers and Scholars Endorse Bernie Sanders: “Bernie Sanders, the politics he advocates, the consistent track record he demonstrates, and the powerful policy changes he has outlined, if elected, would make the most far-reaching and positive impact on the lives and condition of Black people, and all people in the United States.”

Rising for a Global Feminist Future with the Movement to Elect Bernie Sanders: “All of our lives we have been creating movements and art organized around the critical basic human dignity of all people. We support the movement to elect Senator Sanders because engaging electoral politics is a part of the larger strategic democratic movement for solidarity and a feminist future to take hold. We believe an end to patriarchy demands an end to class and racial oppression.

“All across this country and globe, women and children have been working toward a shift in collective consciousness. A feminist future requires political change by men, women, and gender non-binary people not just in the structures and laws but in our collective values and behaviors. It requires an end to violence against women, girls, and all femme people. A feminist future demands the spirit of cooperation. We are inspired and motivated by the grassroots movements brewing across the globe and here in the United States of America for decency, dignity, and respect. We amplify poor, unemployed, and working people behind this political moment aching with passion and anxiety toward the uncertainty of tomorrow. We must strategically rally and rise together.”

Boots Riley, Why I am voting for Bernie Sanders: “People are looking for ways to exact power over their own lives. More and more they are realising that in order to do that we need a mass, militant, radical labour movement that can collectively withhold labour as a tool — not only for higher wages and benefits — but as a tool for larger social justice issues as well

“In order to get some of the reforms that Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform calls for — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free university and trade school tuition, building 10 million more homes in an effort to address homelessness — it’s going to take movement tactics.

“We are going to have to have strategic, targeted and general strikes to force the hand of the folks who have some of these politicians in their pockets.”

And fellow anthropologists please consider signing this one…

Anthropologists for Bernie Sanders: “As anthropologists committed to a more equitable, sustainable, and just world, we write to express our support for Senator Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination. While we believe true social transformation happens primarily through the pressure of social movements, our research also teaches us the importance of leadership that will heed the call of grassroots demands for economic and social justice. We urge people to support Bernie Sanders’ candidacy now, and work to ensure he will be our next president.

“Our discipline exposes us to multiple and varied ways of organizing society, the economy, and social relations. We know from our field experience that no form of inequality or injustice is inevitable, natural, or permanent. Human beings create and re-create their social realities by acting collectively.”

New arrests in “sedition” case targeting Evo Morales

Departmental legislator Gustavo Torrico and Evo Morales’ legal representative Patricia Pamela Hermosa are the latest people arrested in the interim Bolivian government’s legally dubious effort to prosecute exiled president Evo Morales for the crimes of sedition and terrorism. Torrico, a member of the Departmental Legislative Assembly of La Paz, was arrested last night (February 6) and is expected to be charged with sedition for threatening comments he made in a late October radio interview. Hermosa, for her part, was arrested on February 2 while bringing Morales’ identity documents into Bolivia in order to register him as a MAS-IPSP candidate for Senate. She seems to be under investigation due to telephone records indicating she spoke with Evo Morales in November after his overthrow on November 10. The government has also floated the possibility of subpoenaing Chapare cocalero leader and senate candidate Andrónico Rodríguez in the case.

These moves, on top of the active investigation of at least 592 Morales government officials for alleged financial irregularities, and the recent brief arrests and apparent physical mistreatment of two officials given safe passage out of the country, illustrate a scenario in which judicial actions is being used as an active mechanism of political persecution against members of Morales’ party. The “sedition and terrorism” case is the spearhead of that overall effort.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges & Lawyers Diego García-Sayán has publicly called out the Áñez government: “I am concerned by the use of judicial and prosecutorial institutions for political persecution. The number of illegal detentions is growing. Today it was the turn of former minister Gustavo Torrico. I call for respect of the independence of institutions and for due process.”

García-Sayán published a broader critique in yesterday’s edition of El País in Spain.

Details on Torrico’s October comments follow…

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Jeanine Áñez’s surprising new ally from La Paz

With less than 48 hours remaining before an official deadline to finalize party alliances for the May 3 presidential ballot, two sudden surprises shifted the Bolivian political landscape. First, interim President Jeanine Áñez Chávez announced her own candidacy, reversing her emphatic promises upon assuming office. Áñez had been warning for weeks of the danger of splitting the anti-MAS vote and urging unity over partisanship. Now she will become one of at least ten candidates facing off against the MAS-IPSP candidate, former finance minister Luis Arce Catacora.

On January 10, for example, Áñez tweeted:

We Bolivians have fought for a single cause: to leave tyranny behind; that we have accomplished thanks to the patriotism of the youth, women, and men who went out onto the streets for a free Bolivia. To disperse the vote would be to devalue our struggle!

Tweet from Jeanine Añez Chavez (@JeanineAnez), January 10, 2020.

As late as January 19, the interim president was placing herself above partisan politics in her pleas for unity: “We hope that there will be the political maturity and openness within the political class to see the greater good. What may happen with me is what I am least concerned with, what does interest me is what could happen to Bolivia.” Of course, by then, the negotiations for her candidacy had already begun.

The Demócratas party (Twitter|Wikipedia entry)—formally the Social Democrat Movement, but composed of rightist regional parties and led by Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz —took up her candidacy as their own. Áñez had represented the party (competing as the “Unity Democrats” alliance) as a senator in the 2015-2020 term. Significantly, however, two more political forces have joined in backing her candidacy.

Luis “Lucho” Revilla and Juan del Granado at a press conference celebrating Revilla’s first election as mayor of La Paz, 4 April 2011. (photo: Carwil Bjork-James)

Luis “Lucho” Revilla has governed La Paz as mayor since 2010, a post he succeeded from his co-partisan and human rights lawyer Juan del Granado. The two had both represented the Without Fear Movement (Movimiento Sin Miedo; MSM), a center-left party that allied with Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP in 2005, and offered support wtih criticism during the 2008 constitutional referendum. The party, always strongest in La Paz department, made a serious effort at recruiting disaffected MAS voters in the 2009 general and 2010 regional election. In 2014, however, it failed to reach the 3% threshold for keeping its legal status and was forced to reorganize in advance of the 2015 regional elections. Revilla’s urban progressive party allied with Felix Patzi’s indigenous socialist Third System Movement (Movimiento Tercer Sistema; MTS) to become the dominant political force in La Paz department: SOL.bo, a tech-oriented acronym for Sovereignty and Freedom (Soberanía y Libertad punto bo). Patzi, whose ideology proposes indigenous communities as the basis of a system beyond capitalism and state socialism, has been governor of La Paz for the last five years. Ever distrustful of Evo Morales’ governing party SOL.bo joined Carlos Mesa’s Citizen Community presidential coalition in 2019.

So it was a major surprise on January 24 when Revilla threw his support behind Jeanine Áñez, in an endorsement that coincided with the Alasitas festival in downtown La Paz. Widespread speculation implies that Revilla expects a Vice Presidential position in return for his endorsement, but the second spot on the ballot has not been announced yet, and Revilla is very loudly proclaiming that he didn’t trade his endorsement for a seat. Almost as loudly as Jeanine Áñez had proclaimed she wasn’t considering running for president.

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Q & A on the Bolivian electoral conflict

Protests about the October 20 Bolivian election are now in their ninth day. Monday September 28 saw significant protest clashes between pro-government and anti-government demonstrators in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and La Paz, as well as between the police and anti-government demonstrators in Tarija. Listed below are some simple question-and-answer thoughts about the current situation (unapologetically, I’m sharing the questions asked by a news wire service), followed by other sources of information.

Why do the protests cover the whole country?

At the ballot box (see my analysis here) and in the streets the pro- and anti-Evo Morales coalitions in the current Bolivian electoral crisis are both multiracial and multi-class, although anti-Evo forces are stronger in urban areas.

Protesters in Bolivia first took the streets on the day after the election when the mysterious suspension of the “rapid count” of the results ended and Evo Morales surged past the 10% threshold he needed to claim a first-round victory. It was at this moment that allegations of fraud became widespread, although there was limited evidence as of that day. Those protests and the six days of mobilizations since have taken place in capitals in all nine of Bolivia’s departments. Carlos Mesa won a plurality of votes in all of those cities, with his strongest support coming in Potosí and Santa Cruz.

Relevantly, Potosí and Santa Cruz had been on opposite sides during the 2008 political crisis, in which separatist movements in the eastern departments refused to recognize the constitutional reforms led by the Morales government. Potosí was a bastion of pro-MAS votes in pre-2014 elections, but has had a series of mass movements since 2010 to demand greater investment and development in Bolivia’s most impoverished region, setting it at odds with the national government.

The protests built upon pre-election cabildos (public mass meetings that claim to speak for the city or region) held in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, La Paz, Tarija, and Potosí. These meetings all pledged to defend “February 21” and “democracy.” That is, they promised to uphold the 2016 referendum vote denying Morales the right to run for a fourth term, and to defend the 2019 vote from any fraud or manipulation. Many Bolivians were ready to take to the streets on a moment’s notice after the elections.

What is the present scenario in Bolivia?

President Morales maintains a strong base of support, which is stronger in the rural areas, but not overwhelmingly in any one region of the country. Since late last week, Morales has mobilized his supporters to “defend his victory.” In some areas of the country, opposing protesters have faced off in the streets, causing injuries to one another.

Confidence in the electoral outcome, declared in favor of Morales over the weekend, is low. Morales indicates that he plans to remain in office for a fourth term. The OAS electoral observer mission has offered to audit the first round ballot, which the government has accepted while stating the audit will not be binding. Meanwhile, the OAS, the EU, and the political opposition are calling for a second-round presidential vote as a measure to provide confidence in the electoral victory of the next president.

At the moment, the two sides have incompatible demands and have not accepted a common forum for resolving the outcome of the election, leading to the danger of escalating tension and on-the-street violence.

What can happen with the economy?

Both sides are engaging in common means of protest in Bolivia: general strikes and road blockades. The opposition is framing its mobilizations as a national strike, and supplementing it with street blockades in major cities. Meanwhile government supporters are both mobilizing members to the cities and beginning highway blockades in rural areas that could isolate major cities from supplies. Prolonged strikes interrupt daily business, domestic and international commerce, and tourism; indeed this is their main leverage. All of these things are longstanding features of Bolivian politics, but the prospect of simultaneous national strikes and blockades in opposition to one another could raise the economic impact to an unusually high level.

Other sources: CEDIB has compiled a chronology of events (es) from the election through October 24, and promises to update it. The official vote count, which gave Evo Morales 47.08% of the vote, more than 10 points ahead of Carlos Mesa with 36.51% of the vote, is online (be sure to choose “Mundo” from the drop-down for complete results). The OAS Electoral Observer Mission has published its preliminary report criticizing the handling of the election. I maintain a list of Twitter accounts on/in Bolivia (usual social media disclaimers apply). I will be writing more on the conflict; watch this space.

Photo above: Confrontations flared between transport drivers who mobilized to break up blockades by anti-government activists mobilized “in defense of the vote” on Avenida Panamericana in Cochabamba, October 28. Photo published by Cochabamba newspaper Opinión.

Understanding the end of the Evo Morales majority

The October 20, 2019, election in Bolivia marks a watershed moment in the electoral fortunes of Evo Morales and the party he leads, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). When Morales was elected in 2005, he was the first candidate to achieve an absolute majority (53.7%) of Bolivian voters in at least half a century. The MAS-IPSP was the leading force of a three-fifths majority alliance in the Constitutional Assembly of 2006 and 2007, which produced a new constitution approved by 61.4% of voters in January 2009. In the next two elections, in 2009 and 2014, Evo and the MAS-IPSP won over 60% of the vote, and gained two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

A referendum to authorize Morales to run for a fourth term was held on February 21, 2016. Despite a vigorous campaign, Morales was unable to secure majority support to amend the constitution. He finished with 48.7% of the vote.

This week, Morales has again fallen short of the 50% mark, winning between 44% and 46.85% of the vote. Vote counting is ongoing, but the key question is not whether Morales will win majority, but whether he will outpace his leading challenger by more than 10% and avoid a runoff. In the legislature, the MAS-IPSP will lose its supermajority, but will remain the majority party in the Chamber of Deputies and may end up with half the Senators, or one or two more.

While the final vote totals are not in, we have both a broad-based rapid count (TREP) by the Plurinational Electoral Organ of some 83% of the votes cast and a parallel analysis by researchers at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and Fundación Jubileo called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your vote counts”). The differences between these two sources are minor, and putting either into context lets us see the overall trends. (Since the re-started rapid count is the object of speculation about vote manipulation and the official count is incomplete and rapidly changing, I’m not using their data here.)

Morales lost votes across the board since 2014, 2016

Compared with the last presidential election in 2014, Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP lost support in all nine of Bolivia’s departments, receiving 15.9% altogether. (All percentages in this post are percentages of votes cast, not percentage declines.) The sharpest losses for the governing party came in Chuquisaca, Potosí, and Oruro. Potosí and Oruro are traditional sources of strength for the MAS-IPSP, but have been fading for nearly a decade. In the two most populous departments, La Paz department fell away from the MAS-IPSP slightly more than the national average, while Santa Cruz’s vote share decline slightly less. The northern Amazonian departments of Beni and Pando saw the smallest declines.

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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.

Evo Morales remains the favorite, but Bolivia faces first uncertain election in Plurinational era

Evo Morales’ bid for a fourth term as Bolivia’s president will be put to the test when voters go to the polls on Sunday, October 20. All signs point to the most competitive presidential contest since 2002, when the future president narrowly lost to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the architect of neoliberalism in Bolivia. After grassroots protests ousted Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and his historian-turned-Vice-President in 2005, Evo Morales swept to power with a decisive majority in a December 2005 special election. Since then, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) has dominated national and municipal politics in the country, and never dipped below 48% support on a national ballot.

Morales is now the longest serving president in Bolivian history, but polls, past electoral results, and an extraordinary series of pre-election protests point to his extraordinary vulnerability this time around. Even though Morales retains a solid base and a significant lead in the polls, he may not clear the threshold for a first round victory, and could face a competitive runoff with Carlos Mesa a month later.

To understand the uncertainty in the election, you must first know the ground rules of the vote. Under the 2009 Constitution, presidents are elected by popular vote. In the initial round of voting, a candidate who receives over 50% of the votes cast (for a candidate), or who receives 40% and holds a 10% advantage over the 2nd place finisher is elected president. Otherwise, the top two finishers face off in a new head-to-head vote. Current polls agree that Morales and Mesa will finish first and second, respectively, but differ as to whether a runoff will be triggered.

Bolivian public opinion polls vary widely in quality and consistency. Historically, some have concentrated their samples in the more accessible urban corridors and underestimated the MAS-IPSP vote, which once had overwhelming rural strength. This year, however, a research team at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (La Paz’s famed public university) produced a poll with an extraordinarily large and geographically representative sample called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your Vote Counts”). Their most recent results are shown here:

If accurate, Morales’ 32.3-27.0 margin would neither clear the 40% threshold nor the 10% minimum difference, even after excluding blank, null, and unsure votes as the electoral authorities will do in their calculations. Another poll by CiesMori shows a wider lead, 36.2-26.9. Discarding the neutral votes, this puts Morales just above the numbers needed to avoid a runoff.

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Santa Cruz cabildo: Bolivian fires prompt right-leaning region to mobilize “in defense of the land”

On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.

Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.

But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.

On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.

Now add the fires to the mix.

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