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Bolivia: when democracy went awol

Why Evo's inistence on a fourth presidential term proved so corrosive



Evo’s last years in power marked by violations of democracy

November 10 2019 will be a day to remember in Bolivian history. At 16:50 of that Sunday afternoon Evo Morales resigned the presidency and there were large street demonstrations by those celebrating the news, but also protests by those who supported him. However, widespread jubilation was short-lived, as violence spread through the country, mainly in El Alto and La Paz.

Bolibians celebrate the resignation of Evo Morales. Video: Noticieros Televisa. 10 November 2019
Women’s march in Santa Cruz against the coup. Video: Noticias Bolivia. 16 November 2019
Massive demonstration in Cochabamba against the coup d’état. Vido: RT 15 November 2019

In the middle of these scenes, Morales denounced a civilian coup with the support of the Police. He said that ‘dark forces’ conspired against the government, attacked the families of MAS politicians and government officials, and forced them to run away. According to Morales, the citizens and the police officers attempted unconstitutionally to force him out of office. 

But Morales and his supporters omitted to mention some important facts that must be considered. Unfortunately, the violence and chaos Bolivians have lived through during these last days after Evo’s flight to México, have distracted attention from the serious violations of democracy Bolivia had already experienced. One thing must be clear: people were protesting against the lack of democracy, not against the work that has been carried out by Morales during his 14 years in the government.

The issue of standing for more than one term

So let’s start from the beginning. Evo Morales, leader of the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) became the first indigenous president in Bolivian history in 2006. According to Article 87 of the Constitution in force at that time he could be president just for one term (four years) with no option to be re-elected for a second consecutive term. But in January 2009, a new Constitution was approved in which the presidential term was extended to five years and re-election was allowed just for one term, according to  Article 168. This meant that a person could be president at most for ten continuous years.

Evo was re-elected to the presidency in December 2009 because under the new Constitution he was allowed to run for a second term that should have finished in 2014. However, in 2014 he ran again arguing that his first term had been under the old Constitution, therefore under the new one, the term starting in 2009 was his first. He participated in these elections and was re-elected for a ‘second’ period that, this time, which should have finished in 2019.

Aware of this limit, in 2016 Morales called a referendum to modify the Constitution and to allow him to stay in the power for an unlimited time. On 21 February 51.3 per cent of the people voted against the change while 48.7 per cent voted in favour. After learning the results Morales stated that he would respect the people’s vote, but warned: ‘We have lost a battle, but not the war, the fight will continue’.

The human right to be elected

In September 2017 a group of 10 members of the Bolivian Parliament submitted a legal petition to annul Article 168 of the Constitution. They argued that this article was a violation of human rights set out in the American Convention on Human Rights (specifically those in Articles 1,23,24,29) which highlighted the right of any citizen to vote and be elected ‘in genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and by secret ballot that guarantees the free expression of the will of the voters’.

The petition was submitted to the Bolivian Constitutional Court, where six out of seven judges found in favour of Morales. Later on, at least three of these seven judges were given important jobs within the government: Macario Cortez Chávez, who was president of the Constitutional Court, became director of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform; Neldy Andrade Martínez became district director of the Mining Administrative Jurisdictional Authority; and Ruddy Flores Monterrey became director of the Law Department in the Ministry of External Affairs. The political opposition regarded this as Morales giving out rewards.

In the light of that constitutional verdict and with the next general elections approaching, the Electoral Court had to decide whether to accept Morales as a candidate or to respect the 2016 referendum results. Four out of six members of the Electoral Court decided that the 2016 referendum results should be respected, but that the constitutional verdict must also be respected. With that contradictory argument they accepted that Evo and his vice president Álvaro García Linera could run again for the elections of 2019.

In March of 2018, on being consulted by the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Commission for Democracy through Law published a report explaining that the re-election is not a human right; and that the limits to the period a person can remain in the presidency are designed to avoid the abuse of power, the establishment of dictatorship and to protect the human rights of the citizens.

‘In presidential and semi-presidential systems, term-limits on the office of the President therefore are a check against the danger of abuser of power by the head of the executive branch. As such, they pursue the legitimate aims to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, it stated in the report’s conclusions, adding: ‘abolishing limits on presidential re-election represents a step back in terms of democratic achievement. (…) Furthermore, term limits can promote accountability of elected officials by helping to prevent inappropriate concentrations of power’.

Despite multiple demonstrations against the decision of the Electoral Court, it seemed that nothing could be done to stop Evo running a candidate in the 2019 presidential elections. In the run up to polling day on 20 October, there were thousands of calls to vote for the most popular opposition candidate: Carlos Mesa (a former president of Bolivia during the turbulent period 2002-2005). It seemed that Bolivians were not convinced by any candidate, united only in their desire to stop another five years of Morales in the presidency.

This was not a question of racism or discrimination, as some left-wing defenders of Morales claimed, nor was it a question of how well this government had done its work. The problem was that the MAS government had extended its influence and control to every institution in the state. There was no longer an independent judiciary, nor an independent electoral system. The Bolivian Parliament, controlled by the official party, had become a body to tamely approve any law the government proposed. Even the indigenous organizations and workers’ unions were divided and controlled by MAS, and those organizations that did not submit to control faced the persecution of their leaders

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The disputed count

On 20 October, election day, once the polls closed, partial results started to appear on the Electoral Court website. By 19:40 of the same day, 83.8 per cent of the votes had been counted. Evo had received 45.3 per cent of the votes, and Mesa 38.2 per cent (seven points of difference). Under the constitution, if neither candidate achieved 50 per cent of the vote, and there was less than 10 per cent difference between the two leading contenders, there must be a run-off election between the top two candidates. Suddenly, the vote count was halted. For almost 24 hours the results were unknown, until the night of 21 October, when the system was reactivated and Morales appeared as the winner of the elections, marginally more than 10 per cent ahead of Carlos Mesa, thus avoiding a run-off.

Why the system was stopped? What had happened during the count? After a while, some answers were made public.

On 28 October, the director of Neotec, the company hired by the Electoral Court to manage the electronic vote counting system, provided the following explanation:

  1. At 20:10 on election day, 20 October, the internet service to register the votes was shut down mysteriously.
  2. At 20:15 of the same day the Electoral Court ordered Neotec to halt the count when 83.8 percent had already been registered.
  3. An unsupervised server was being used to store the votes.
  4. When the system was reactivated and publication of the results resumed, the margin between Morales and Mesa increased.
  5. However, Neotec gave reassurances that the data itself was not modified at any time.

Later, Ethical Hacking, the company hired to audit the electronic system to count the votes and the work of Neotec, released its own report which identified nine vulnerabilities in the electronic system. These vulnerabilities put at risk the security and integrity of the data. Furthermore, 12 security incidents were detected while the system was in use, as well as modifications made in the database by Neotec. At 19:30 on 20 October, some minutes before the system was halted, excessive data traffic was detected from an unknown computer outside the controlled system, used by the director of Neotec. He explained that he did this because the members of the Electoral Court wanted to see the results before publishing them.  On 25 October Ethical Hacking reported inconsistencies in more than 4,000 votes.

‘We cannot attest to the integrity of the election results,’ their report states, ‘because the entire process is corrupt and nullified due to the number of alterations to the source code, the multiple accesses and manual modifications to the databases during the electoral process, and the inconsistencies of the software that were emerging in the computer system’. 

The OAS audit

On 10 November the Organization of American States (OAS) released a preliminary report – a summary of its audit of the Bolivian elections. The document highlighted the unknown and uncontrolled servers which had been used to transfer voting data during the election. The database had been modified. Signatures were forged on ballot papers. There were more votes than voters in Argentina. The physical process for counting the votes had been violated. And after the electronic system was halted Evo’s votes increased while Carlos Mesa’s decreased considerably. In both cases the alteration of the votes was ‘statistically improbable’.

OAS and EU ask for new elections in Boliva. Video: Euronews

‘We discovered a clear manipulation of the electronic system that modified the results in this system and the final counting’, stated the report. ‘It is possible that Morales ended up first and Mesa second. However, it is statistically improbable that Morales got a 10 per cent difference to avoid a run-off election’. The OAS further stated ‘[the OAS team] could not validate the results of this election and therefore recommended a new election. It also indicated that any future election will require new electoral authorities in order to carry ouorganize a ballot that can be trusted.’

Later on, the general secretary of the OAS, Luis Almagro, said: ‘The coup d’etat was made by those who made a fraud. The people cannot be asked to let an election be stolen, to be robbed of sovereignty, to be robbed of power. That people today, in search of lost sovereignty, began to recover democracy’.  

By then, there was already massive protest on the streets of the nine Bolivian departments. Those who had protested because the setting aside of the 2016 referendum result could not tolerate a fraud of such dimensions in the 2019 elections. It was considered unfair that the political party that had perpetrated the fraud could run again in new elections, so the citizens who mobilized, huge numbers of people maintaining a strike for more than 20 days, started to demand that the president resign.   

Morales’ resignation ‘suggested’

On 10 November at 12:10 the National Union of Workers (Central Obrera Boliviana) suggested to Evo Morales that he resign, to bring peace to the country where three people had already been murdered, and where MAS allies were suffering persecution by citizens that, allegedly, burned down their houses and threatened their families.

At 15:48 that day, the Armed Forces also suggested that the president should resign citing Article 20 of the Organic Law of the Armed Forces (approved in 1992), which states that military commanders can ‘analyse the internal and external conflict situations, to suggest to the corresponding authority the best solutions’. 

At 16:04 of the same day, the Police Commander, Yuri Calderón, made the same suggestion. By then, police officers all over the country were in open mutiny against Morales. However, neither the Police, nor the Armed Forces, launched any operations against MAS government. On the other hand, all the military and police commanders also resigned and as of today (15 November) there are already new commanders in these institutions.

Around 16.50, from El Chapare, Cochabamba, the region where he started his political career, Evo Morales announced his resignation to ‘stop (Carlos) Mesa and (Luis Fernando) Camacho (a citizen leader, ex vice-president of Cruceñista Youth Organization) attacking my brothers and sisters, and authorities of MAS’. He stated that there was a ‘civilian coup’ under way and that ‘some sectors of the Police are acting against democracy and social peace’. He did not mention the COB or the military’s suggestion that he resign as reasons for his taking this course.

During the last days, at least 34 people who worked in the Electoral Court in different parts of the country were arrested and now are being investigated for fraud in the recent elections. This has occurred since the resignation of Evo Morales and after the OAS report was published. Four of the six members of the Supreme Electoral Court were sent to jail and two of them are still being hunted by the Police.