Now, after several postponements, Bolivians are finally voting Sunday to elect a new president, vice president and legislature.
It is a competition that many hoped would have put last year’s accusations to rest, but in reality could split an already divided country further.
In the crowded race for president, two men are leading the pack – frontrunner Luis Arce, a socialist former finance minister, and the more centrist former president Carlos Mesa.
The winner will inherit debilitating protests, a besieged public health system, and an economy stuck in recession.
Let’s look at how we got to this point and what could happen next.
When Bolivians went to the polls in October 201
It was clear that the competition would come down to two candidates: long-serving President Evo Morales and former President Carlos Mesa.
Morales, the country’s greater than life, the first indigenous president, had been credited with years of efforts to reduce poverty and expand the economy, and led a campaign to nationalize certain industries that delivered positive results.
But criticism grew as his third term ended; Morales was increasingly the target of corruption allegations and was only able to run again in 2019 after a controversial Supreme Court ruling removed time constraints.
Mesa himself has in fact never been elected president. In 2003, he served as vice president when then-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada retired after massive protests.
Mesa took over and lasted less than two years before also resigning during protests. In his 2019 bid to return to the highest office, the former journalist sought to appeal to the center of a polarized voter.
Preliminary results were announced on the evening of October 20, showing Morales with a slight lead over Mesa, but not enough to avoid a run-off election under Bolivian electoral rules: Candidates need 50% of the vote or at least 40% and a 10- points lead, to avoid another round of voting.
Morales did not seem to have any at first.
But that night, the vote stopped unexpectedly. When it resumed approx. 24 hours later, Morales’ modest lead rose and put him over the threshold to avoid runoff. He claimed victory a few days later, but Mesa refused to admit, citing a flawed vote count. Many rejected the election results as false.
An election audit by the Organization of American States (OAS), released a few weeks later, claimed that there was “intentional manipulation” and “serious irregularities” in the number of votes. The revision would soon be under strict control, but its effect was immediate.
The influential hemisphere body said it would not certify the election results, further stimulating critics ‘demands for Morales’ resignation.
She quickly promised new elections, but a year later, those elections are happening right now after a series of broken promises.
Despite first offering to hold elections within 90 days of ascending to power, Añez scheduled them in May, more than two months later than her original offer. Shortly after Bolivia announced its first confirmed case of coronavirus on March 10, the election was set indefinitely.
Añez cited public health issues for the delay, but it set the stage for further tensions with critics saying her administration has cracked down on political opponents, donated its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and wrongly held on to power.
Shortly after joining, the Añez administration was quickly accused of brutally suppressing protesters and racism against indigenous groups overwhelmingly supporting the Socialism (MAS) movement, the party once led by former President Evo Morales.
Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a late 2019 report that “… restrictions on free speech and arbitrary detention have all contributed to a climate of fear and misinformation” under Añez.
And the OAS revision, which helped push Morales out of power, has since been repeatedly questioned. The Center for Economic and Political Research, a left-leaning American think tank, published a lengthy report claiming that the OAS ‘allegations of electoral fraud were unfounded and damaging, saying, “… the OAS chose a political intervention over a technical intervention.”
A group of two dozen U.S. lawmakers led by Senator Bernie Sanders also sent a recent letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a review of the OAS regarding “… its actions last November, which contributed to a major exacerbation of human rights and democracy in Bolivia. “
The OAS has fiercely defended its election revision, including issuing a 3,200-word press release in June, responding to its critics in detail. According to the statement, “the evidence gathered leaves no room for doubt as to whether electoral fraud was committed.”
Throughout Añez’s tumultuous reign, Bolivia’s response to the coronavirus has been patchy at best and disastrous at worst.
The country has one of the highest death rates from coronavirus per capita. 100,000 people in the world, only subsequently two other major countries. Añez even got the virus along with about a dozen members of her senior cabinet.
Her health minister was arrested in May on suspicion of corruption involving the purchase of fans.
The unfortunate series of events has sparked protest after protest against the government.
When Añez again postponed the national referendum from September 6 to this weekend, thousands of protesters set up dozens of roadblocks, crippling cities like La Paz.
But with ballots cast this weekend, the country may finally be at a turning point.
The election has arrived
Once again, former President Carlos Mesa faces a member of the MAS party: Luis Arce, Morales’ former finance minister and hand-picked successor. A number of other candidates are likely to win small votes, but it is basically a two-man race. Añez herself dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, saying she was hoping to help consolidate voters against Arce.
Although voting has consistently positioned Arce as the frontrunner, it is unclear at this point whether he has enough votes to avoid runoff. If Arce does not exceed the threshold, a second round of voting, tentatively scheduled for November 29, will certainly increase existing tensions. All sides are on high alert for signs of fraud.
If voters identify such signs, or if one or more candidates declare the election results invalid, it could trigger a protracted post-election battle and damage in the long run the perceived legitimacy of Bolivia’s democratic institutions.
Regardless of the result, protests are widely expected. The U.S. Embassy in La Paz recently issued a security warning warning its citizens of the potential for violence and shortages of groceries and gas. In the long run, the next president will face a fiercely biased mood in the country and a potentially divided government.
Fuel for any unrest will be persistent economic pain. Unemployment has risen since the pandemic began, the International Monetary Fund predicts a nearly 8% drop in GDP this year, and last month the US credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Bolivia’s status.
In other words, disputes over the outcome of the election are perhaps only the beginning of the next president’s problems. Bolivia’s innumerable problems will almost certainly not be limited to just the last year.