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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