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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Manifesto of Mesa 18, the “rebel session” at the 2010 Tiquipaya Climate Summit

In April 2010, as the Bolivian government hosted the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Tiquipaya, movements within the country pressed for a forum to talk about these how the environment is treated within the country. The tens of thousands of summit attendees had their conversations structured around 17 working groups or “mesas” (literally, tables) on topics from ºthe root causes of climate change” to forests to the rights of Mother Earth. The Bolivian indigenous federations CONAMAQ and CIDOB proposed Mesa 18, an eighteenth working group on domestic environmental problems in Bolivia.

As the summit approached, they and the government got into a very public dispute with the over whether it would be included. Officially, the five Pact of Unity organizations—including CONAMAQ and CIDOB—were co-hosting the Summit, and they met to formally approve the structure of the meeting. Nonetheless, Evo Morales and the Foreign Ministry vetoed any discussion of “internal matters” in an official track. “I don’t know why we’re talking about Mesa 18,” Foreign Minister Choquehuanca blistered as the press questioned him about the issue.

In the end, Mesa 18 was held two blocks outside the gates of the Universidad de la Valle campus, separate and apart from the official sessions. CONAMAQ, four smaller indigenous organizations, one campesino federation, and the Landless Workers’ Movement joined environmentalists and academics to organize two days of sessions before an audience of hundreds of people. Dozens of community groups presented their experiences and concerns about the impacts of “the extractivist development model based on the export of hydrocarbons, hydroelectricity, mining, agribusiness, and lumber” (in the words of a Mesa 18 promotional flyer). These conversations took place in a room with simple concrete floors, a borrowed Brazilian restaurant. Many of the sessions were offered twice, first at the Water Fair commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Water War and again in Tiquipaya.

Called the “rebel” session by the press, Mesa 18 drew a spotlight on the “double talk” of the government, as critiqued by leaders like CONAMAQ’s Rafael Quispe: “This government speaks of respect for Mother Earth, but it simultaneously pollutes the land, and there are the cases of Corocoro, Mutún, the San Cristóbal [mining] company, and projects like Cachuela Esperanza [a planned hydroelectric dam], which also damage the Earth.” Like its official counterparts, Mesa 18 consisted of dozens of short presentations on environmental threats, projected on a screen. A small team compiled the issues presented and formulated a resolution on behalf of the gathering. They declared, “the development plans of these governments, including Bolivia’s, only reproduce the developmentalist schema of the past” and called instead for “the peoples to decide directly the destiny of their natural wealth in accord with their own organizational structures, their self-determination, their own norms and procedures, and their vision of the holistic management of their territories” (my translation, see text below). Outside Mesa 18, participants covered a brick wall with placards in preparation to march. Each detailed a different environmental crisis or contradiction. Unlike the official sessions up the road, these results were not included in the Tiquipaya People’s Accord that concluded the week, but the collective document advanced the same environmental critique, denouncing “mega-infrastructure projects … extractive projects, water privatization and militarized territories.” The massive scale of the summit had offered an opportunity for national visibility around the country’s growing series of socio-environmental conflicts.

Nine years have passed and Mesa 18’s concluding resolution, called the Final Manifesto of Table 18 in Defense of the Peoples and the Earth / Manifiesto Final de la Mesa 18 en Defensa de los Pueblos y la Tierra, has slipped off the internet. I post the complete version below for future reference. A PDF version of the Manifesto is available here.

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Boliviaʼs newest park, Ñembi Guasu, hit by fires

The ongoing fire crisis in the Eastern Bolivia department of Santa Cruz has burned 187,800 hectares of the Ñembi Guasu Area of Conservation and Ecological Importance, scorching forests and leaving behind burnt out wildlife carcasses. The destruction in one-sixth of the Ñembi Guasu comes just four months after the Guaraní Charagua Iyambae autonomous government designated the park as protected on April 29, 2019.

According to reporting from El Deber, the Fires started in Roboré municipality, which has received much of the local attention during the ongoing Chiquitano dry forest fire crisis. But Charagua is the worst-affected municipality in the country, with 239,073 hectares burned according to recently released satellite analysis from the Fundación de Amigos de la Naturaleza.

El Deber reports the fire rages uncontrolled:

Today, it is the largest fire in the country; the only one that no one has taken care of up til now. Since August 9, when a chaqueo [slash and burn fire] got out of control 15 kilometers from Roboré, the flames have devoured land, reaching over 100 km away… and spilling over as far as Paraguay, towards Otoquis [Park] and still no one has done anything to put it out.

Hoy es el incendio más grande del país; el único que nadie ha atendido hasta ahora. Desde el 9 de agosto, cuando un chaqueo se descontroló a 15 kilómetros de Roboré, las llamas han devorado más de 100 kilómetros en línea recta, 187.800 hectáreas hasta ayer, ya se ha desbordado hasta Paraguay y hacia el Otuquis y aún nadie hace nada por apagarlo.

Pablo Ortiz, “Nadie atiende el incendio de Ñembi Guasu: el área protegida más joven,” El Deber, August 27, 2019.

The current fire in Ñembi Guasu stands as a potent metaphor of the risks that agricultural deforestation poses to both indigenous autonomy and conservation. Unless they have the resources to defend the territory, manage disasters, and shape policy, so-called Protected Areas will remain unprotected.

FAN visualization of fires in 2019 in Santa Cruz department