Evo Morales on the brink as opposition refuses dialogue and police mutiny goes national

The balance of power in Bolivia is rapidly shifting away from President Evo Morales as the police mutiny that began last night in Cochabamba has now spread to all nine departments of the country, and most critically to police barracks in La Paz, the seat of government and site of the Presidential Palace. From the palace, President Morales, flanked by Vice President Álvaro García Linera and Foreign Minister Diego Pary put forward a mid-day call for dialogue among the four political parties that will hold seats in the legislature following the hotly disputed October 20 elections.

Sisters and brothers, we have the historic responsibility to defend our democracy and its social policies. I ask our patriotic professionals, workers of the countryside and of the city, to reject in a peaceful manner this coup attempt that is an attack on the constitutional order.

To preserve the peace in our beloved Bolivia, I make an urgent call for a table of dialogue with the representatives of those political parties that won legislative assembly seats in the elections. I call upon Pope Francis, and the various churches and international organizations to accompany us in the dialogue.

The three opposition party leaders—second-place presidential candidate Carlos Mesa Gisbert (Comunidad Ciudadana), Chi Hyun Chung, and Oscar Ortiz—have all rapidly refused the invitation. This is the clearest sign that maximalist demand, for Evo Morales to resign unconditionally, has now become a general demand across the opposition movement.

But it is not the only sign. Moves by police, MAS-IPSP politicians, and the public all show that the ground is shifting against Evo Morales on the Bolivian political scene.

The High Command of the Armed forces has declared:

“The Armed Forces, in the framework of democracy and law, will guarantee the union among compatriots, and therefore we ratify that we will never put ourselves in confrontation with the people, to whom we owe and for whom we will always ensure peace, coexistence among our brothers and sisters, and the development of our homeland.”

“Las Fuerzas Armadas, enmarcadas en la democracia y las leyes, garantizaremos la unión entre compatriotas, por lo que ratificamos que nunca nos enfrentaremos con el pueblo, a quien nos debemos y siempre velaremos por la paz, convivencia entre hermanos y el desarrollo de nuestra patria”

Montero, Baldwin. “FFAA Se Pronuncian Sobre La Crisis y Anuncian Que Nunca Se Enfrentarán Con El Pueblo.” La Razón, November 9, 2019. http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/animal_electoral/bolivia-ffaa-kaliman-posicion-pueblo-crisis_0_3254674531.html.

Several prominent MAS-IPSP politicians have resigned rather than stand against their increasingly protesting populations, notably the governor of Potosí and the mayors of Potosí and Sucre.

Once the police mutiny spread to La Paz, police withdrew from the Plaza Murillo and opposition protesters arrived on the doorstep of the Presidential Palace. Over seven hundred Potosino protesters have arrived in La Paz and 2,500 more are expected on Sunday.

National police mutiny marks a critical point in Bolivian electoral crisis

The Bolivian political crisis set off by credible (if unconfirmed) allegations of fraud in the October 20 presidential elections took two dramatic turns this week. On Wednesday, a major escalation in clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in downtown Cochabamba and near Huayculi in Cochabamba caused scores of serious injuries and the death of a twenty-year old student, Limbert Guzmán, who had been protesting against electoral fraud. The anti-government side engaged in less-lethal outrages upon government-aligned actors: subjecting the MAS-IPSP-affiliated Mayor of Vinto to march to the site of the clashes and pelting her with red paint, and last night burning out the Cochabamba offices of the Chapare coca grower’s union and MAS-IPSP political party.

But the pivotal event of yesterday is the decision of members of the national police to declare themselves in mutiny in solidarity with the electoral fraud protests. (Police mutinies are a periodic occurrence in Bolivia, and the term does not connote a necessarily violent uprising, but rather a collective refusal to follow orders.) The mutiny began at Cochabamba’s Police Operations Tactical Unit (Wikipedia), a specialized anti-riot force, and quickly spread to two other units in the city, and to police units and/or commanders in five other cities since then. Mutinied police officers have occupied their own barracks, raised Bolivian flags and sometimes anti-fraud banners, and effectively removed themselves as an option for President Evo Morales to control mushrooming protests. The ongoing protest mobilization has gathered hundreds or thousands of protesters around police barracks supporting existing mutinies and encouraging further ones. Meanwhile, the Morales government has described the police mutiny as the unmistakable sign of a coup d’état.

Police mutinies in their bottom-up form have accompanied Bolivian protest before. They can force governments to negotiate and avoid bloodshed. Or, in the worst case (Feb 2003), there can be bloodshed among state security forces. The next critical question is the stance of the military. Early signs are neither the military leadership nor Minister of Government appear to want the police and military to be deployed against one another.

Bolivia has had a lot of off-schedule changes of power, but since 1982 the have always been ratified by a vote at the ballot box. This was true in mid-1985, when general strikes and business lockouts forced Hernán Siles Zuazo to call early elections; in October 2003, when the Gas War uprising, supported by a series of hunger strikes led Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign; in June 2005 when further protests pressed Carlos Mesa to resign, and two legislators to forego their right to presidential succession, prompting December 2005 elections; and during the 2008 political crisis, when dueling protest mobilizations were ultimately resolved in favor of the Morales–grassroots left coalition, with the outcome ratified by a recall referendum and a constitutional referendum. In April 2000, a police strike influenced the government decision to capitulate to the Water War protests in Cochabamba and de-escalate its repression of rural protests in the Altiplano. At the final moments, the military high command pressed for a constitutional exit to the crises in 2003 and 2005.

In all of these cases, the military signaled limits to further state repression, stayed out of the presidential chair, and did not substitute its choice of leaders for one determined at the ballot box. Arguably, this is why none of these events are remembered as coups d’ètat. In the current context, doing so will require holding some kind of vote under terms that are acceptable to a broad swath of the Bolivian public and that acknowledges the rights of both Morales and Mesa voters. If and only if the police, military, Morales government and electoral opposition can agree to such an exit, democracy can be preserved.

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.