There is a phrase that has been repeated many times in Bolivia over the last four years: democracy has been fatally wounded. It was first heard in 2016, after President Evo Morales announced that he would run again, even though a majority of Bolivians had voted in a referendum against allowing him to seek a fourth consecutive term. This week it has been shouted again on the streets, amid claims of electoral fraud.
The general election was held last Sunday. Millions of Bolivians voted for their candidate to become president for the next five years. The polls closed at 4 pm. At 7.40 pm the Supreme Electoral Court began showing the preliminary results. At 8.10 pm, when 83 per cent of the votes had been counted through an electronic system, the preliminary results showed that Morales had received 45.28 per cent of the votes and Carlos Mesa 38.16 per cent. According to the Bolivian constitution, the first-placed candidate requires a 10 per cent lead over the second-placed candidate to win the election outright.
As the difference was less than 10 per cent, there should be a run-off election between the top two candidates. But suddenly the official count was stopped. The president of the Supreme Electoral Court, María Eugenia Choque, could not explain clearly why this had happened, but insisted that there was no irregularity. Hours later, though, her vice-president, Antonio Costas, resigned because of ‘the foolish decision of the Supreme Electoral Court to suspend the publication of the results’.
Meanwhile, ViaCiencia, a polling company authorised to make a non-binding count, continued its work. At 9 pm, the company finished and released its results: 43,9 per cent for Evo Morales and 39,4 per cent for Carlos Mesa. For almost 24 hours the electronic system of the Supreme Electoral Court was frozen. Suddenly, at 7.08 pm on Monday, the system was reactivated and the results, with 95 per cent of the votes counted, were released: Morales now had 46,85 per cent, Mesa 36,74 per cent. The sitting president had now secured the 10 percentage points advantage, and he proceeded to proclaim victory, although 100 per cent of the voted had not yet been tallied.
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The situation alarmed the Organization of American States (OAS), which sent observers to verify the transparency of the election. ‘The mission of the OAS expresses deep concern and surprise at the drastic and difficult to justify change in the trend of the preliminary results known after the closing of the polls,” said a spokesperson.
Recently, the Bolivian Chancellor, Diego Pary, invited to the OAS to verify the transparency of the whole electoral process, an invitation that has been accepted by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, but without a specific date for this take place.
The EU, which financed the electronic vote-counting system, also expressed concern. A spokesperson said: ‘The unexpected interruption of the electronic vote counting after the first round of the general elections in Bolivia has sparked serious concerns that need to be fully and swiftly addressed. The Bolivian authorities, in particular the Supreme Electoral Court, are expected to ensure maximum transparency of the counting and tabulation procedures and their outcomes. This is vital to guarantee the credibility of the electoral process, secure the confidence of the voters and respect the will of the Bolivian people. Recent incidents need to be investigated and we furthermore call on all parties to refrain from violence.’
Meanwhile, many furious people went out to the streets to protest against the apparent fraud. There were clashes with Morales supporters and the police; some people were injured and the offices of the Electoral Court’s regional offices were attacked. One detail passed almost unnoticed among the protests: the electronic counting system was stopped again at 6pm Wednesday, with 95 per cent of the votes verified. This time the stoppage was for more than 24 hours, and at the time of writing (17.18 pm on 24 October), the system remains frozen.