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Bolivia: MAS is back

Opposition concedes as MAS candidate wins presidency

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LAB is publishing this special bulletin from Bolivia Information Forum. Written on 19 October, before final results were known, it nevertheless contains details of the voting and excellent background analysis.

19 October: with unofficial polls showing the Movimiento al Socialismo candidate, Luis Arce, the outright winner of the 18 October election, Bolivia seemed to be adjusting itself to the prospect of the MAS, ousted in last year’s coup, returning triumphantly to office. Voters evidently had had enough of the trials and tribulations associated with the far-right ‘interim’ government of Jeanine Añez. However, the official results were likely to be delayed several days. Although Añez conceded the MAS’s victory, as did candidate Carlos Mesa, the risk of violence was ever present, especially in Santa Cruz where the far right seemed ill-disposed to accept a MAS victory, however large the margin. Uncertain days thus lie ahead before a new elected government can take office on 14 November.

First results

In the early hours of 19 October, two quick count/exit polls were published giving the estimated results of national elections, on projections of 95% of the vote. In the absence of the preliminary results system, which the Electoral Court (TSE) cancelled the night before the elections, there were two organisations carrying out exit polls, Ciesmori and Tu Voto Cuenta, both officially recognised by the TSE. Final, official results will not be available for at least 72 hours, given that the vote counting process is manual and access to some voting stations distant. However, the following valid results (which exclude null and void votes) are consistent with each other:

CandidateCiesmoriTu Voto Cuenta
Luis Arce MAS52.453
Carlos Mesa Comunidad Ciudadana31.530.8
Luis Fernando Camacho Creemos14.114.1
Chi Hyun Chung Frente para la Victoria1.61.6
Feliciano Mamani Pan-Bol0.40.5

At departmental level, these were the results, suggesting that the MAS would retain its absolute majority in the legislative assembly:

Ciesmori

CandidateLa PazCocha-bambaSanta CruzChuqui-sacaOruroPotosíTarijaBeniPando
Arce65.363.1  62.451.5  45.8
Mesa   52.4  51.041.3 
Camacho  45.2      

Tu Voto Cuenta

CandidateLa PazCocha-bambaSanta CruzChuqui-sacaOruroPotosíTarijaBeniPando
Arce67.060.336.946.666.056.640.534.745.4
Mesa29.837.017.548.330.236.852.038.627.6
Camacho 1.344.32.6  4.824.324.9
Chi Hyun Chung1.8   2.02.8   

While only the official results will be valid, these figures show an outstanding win by Arce and his running mate David Choquehuanca, with more than a 20-percentage point lead over the next candidate, Carlos Mesa. This clear result should give the new government the legitimacy to attend to the economic crisis the country is facing and to start to break down the high levels of polarisation that have been building over recent years.

How/Why we got here?

The 18 October 2020 elections were called after the Organization of American States and some Bolivian leaders, notably Carlos Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho, called the results of the 20 October 2019 elections fraudulent. As is well known, after the police force mutinied and the armed forces called for Evo Morales’ resignation as president, he stood down and went into exile. A de facto government was formed, led by Senator Jeanine Añez, and supported initially by the Demócratas (a Santa Cruz party led by Governor Rubén Costas) and Luis Fernando Camacho (at that time leader of the Santa Cruz civic committee). 

This ‘interim’ government showed its intentions of perpetuating itself in power by naming Añez as the candidate for a coalition called Juntos. Using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext, Añez postponed the general elections several times. The government’s response to other political parties (especially the MAS) was heavy handed, allegations of corruption abounded, and it showed its determination to introduce lasting changes in spite of its supposedly interim status. After widespread protest by social movements in August against further delays, the final date for the election was confirmed for 18 October.

For the record, the final result for the 2019 election was less definitive than what appears to have been the case this time:

Evo Morales/MAS47.08%
Carlos Mesa/Comunidad Ciudadana36.51%
Chi Hyun Chung/PDC8.78%
Oscar Ortiz/Demócratas-21F4.24%
Félix Patzi/MTS1.25%

Rules of the game

  • After a close revision of the electoral roll by the TSE and inclusion of new young voters, 7,332,925 people were able to vote in the 18 October elections; of these 301,631 people were eligible to vote abroad (in 30 countries). There were problems with the holding of elections in Chile (because of the pandemic) and in Panama.
  • In this general election people voted for president/vice-president, for senators, deputies, indigenous representatives to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly and representatives to international parliaments. The Senate is made up of 36 senators, four for each of the nine departments. The Chamber of Deputies is composed of 130 deputies, 63 of whom are elected on a constituency basis (uninominales), 60 on departmental slates linked to the vote achieved by presidential candidates in their departments (plurinominales) and seven from special indigenous constituencies.
  • After interim president Añez named Salvador Romero as new head of the electoral court, he introduced some changes in the electoral system, particularly the handling/transport of votes (custodio del voto). The preliminary results system (TREP) that was seen as part of the problem in the 2019 elections was replaced with a similar system called DIREPRE. Romero took the decision on the night before the elections to suspend the DIREPRE in view of certain technical problems.

Campaigning and the lead-up to the elections

Campaigning under the threat of Coronavirus was more subdued than in previous elections, with much being carried out on social media, TV and radio. The campaign was marred by insults (particularly against the MAS) and the lack of programmatic input; there were also some violent exchanges between the different contenders’ supporters.

Until the week before the elections, there was a large percentage (around 20%) of voters still apparently undecided or keeping their cards close to their chests. It would seem that a good part of this number voted for the MAS.

Three polls held in the last week before the elections (Ipsos, Tu Voto Cuenta and Ciesmori) estimated that Arce would get between 32.4% and 34% of the vote, Mesa, between 24.5% and 27.9%, and Camacho between 10.7% and 13.9%. In the case of Mesa and Camacho, their predictions were more or less spot on, not so in the case of Arce.

The interim government has been heavy handed in its approach to the elections, using a repressive discourse directed against the MAS. On the night before the elections and on election day itself, police and army presence was strong and very visible. Apparently, around 36,000 troops were mobilised to guard the process, some 4,000 more than in 2019.

The government adopted a stance that was far from neutral in the run-up to the elections with Añez consistently asking people to vote in opposition to the MAS, in favour of the candidate best-placed to beat it, Carlos Mesa. She repeatedly referred to the former MAS government as a “dictatorship” and to Morales as a “tyrant”.

Interior Minister Arturo Murillo was particularly fulsome with his threats, saying that the MAS was preparing turmoil. Indeed, Arce complained about this to the UN, the OAS, the European Union and CELAC. On a recent visit to Washington, Murillo met with OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro, where he talked about worries of fraud in the elections, and with US government officials on matters apparently related to security. Interior Vice-minister Javier Issa said the police were ready to use their arms if necessary. Murillo asked the police to vote “against the dictatorship”. There were also threats against Spain’s Podemos MPs in Bolivia for the elections and an Argentinian deputy was stopped in the airport in La Paz. At 6 p.m. on election day, Añez – surrounded by her military cabinet – called on people to be “patient” and await the official results. 

In the days immediately before the election, people showed anxiety about the political and economic situation, queueing for petrol and witnessing price speculation in the markets. On the day, however, they turned out en masse, with older people (in spite of their being allowed to stay at home) queueing from early morning to register their vote.