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Bolivia elections: socialist Luis Arce celebrates projected victory amid democratic fragility

Men including Luis Arce raise their hands in celebration.
Luis Arce (centre) celebrates after an exit poll put him as victor in Bolivia’s presidential election. EPA

Luis Arce, former finance minister in the government of Evo Morales, celebrated with his campaign team in La Paz in the early hours of October 19 as an exit poll forecast his victory in the country’s presidential elections. Although the official results will not be announced before October 25, all signs point to Arce’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) winning the presidential elections in the first round.

Arce, one of the key architects of economic policy during the Morales presidency, succeeded the former socialist leader – who remains in exile in Argentina – as the leader of the MAS. Although Arce does not come from any of the social movements at the base of the party, he is seen as a leader capable of bringing the party, and country more generally, together.

Despite some heated discussions around polling stations, election day in Bolivia proceeded without a hitch, with many in the country breathing a collective sigh of relief. Nevertheless, Bolivian democracy still faces a number of challenges.

Almost exactly a year has passed since the 2019 vote, which was marred by accusations that the incumbent Morales had committed electoral fraud. After 14 years in power, he was finally forced from office by a coup d’état in early November 2019, with state-perpetrated violence after the putsch leaving scores dead.

There is still much we do not know about those dark days, while many of the issues raised by the 2019 political crisis remain unresolved. The strength of liberal democracy remains weak and the country’s political arena split between those that believe Morales and the MAS were ousted by a coup and those that believe the 2019 elections were fraudulent.

COVID-19 has poured fuel on the fire, as the interim government of Jeanine Añez consistently used the pandemic as a means to consolidate her own political project and delay elections.

Liberal democracy in Bolivia

Bolivia’s liberal democratic institutions do not match up to the complex political reality at the best of times, but changes in the past decade to the body responsible for overseeing elections further eroded public trust in democracy. Morales’s political opponents believed the executive branch of government had undue influence over Bolivia’s new Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). These suspicions were, in their minds, confirmed in 2017 when the TSE accepted Morales’s candidacy for the 2019 elections despite limits on constitutional terms which should have precluded him.

Morales was allowed to run for a fourth term on the grounds of his human rights to democracy, but the price was high. His political opponents mounted a sustained attack on the TSE and painted the 2019 elections as fraudulent in the months leading up the ballot. This was so effective that by September 2019, 68% of Bolivians polled believed there would be fraud in the upcoming elections.

For its part, the TSE did its best to lose what credibility it had left. In October 2019, on the night of the elections, the quick count system known as TREP was stopped unexpectedly. The TSE gave no fewer than four conflicting explanations, angering protesters already suspecting fraud and leading to mass violence in cities across the country.

The Organisation of American States then waded into the fray, publicly voicing its concern about electoral fraud in a report that has since received substantial criticism. The vice president of the TSE, Antonio Costas, then resigned, leaving its reputation in tatters.

Protesters marching with the Wiphala flag.
Anger after the coup: supporters of Evo Morales protesting in November 2019. Martin Alipaz/EPA

The TSE has fared little better in 2020 under its new president, Salvador Romero. Persistent suspicions of fraud led Romero to cancel the new quick count system, the DIREPRE, a day before the October 18 elections. Until the official count is in, nothing can be taken for granted.

Competing narratives of crisis

The streets are still one of the principal sites of Bolivian politics. Violence marked the run up to the 2020 elections, leading international observers to call for calm.

Following the events of October 2019, the country polarised around two competing narratives: coup d’état or electoral fraud. These narratives were staked out in the streets.

On the one hand, fraud was initially denounced in massive cabildos (public assemblies) in the weeks preceding the 2019 vote and later through the burning of electoral counting houses. More recently, right-wing motorcycle gangs took to the streets in the cities of Cochabamba and Sucre to defend against the return of the MAS.

On the other hand, protests against the coup in El Alto, a majority indigenous city, and Sacaba, the stronghold of the coca growers’ union and the MAS, were met with brutal state violence. Human Rights Watch has accused the Añez government of wielding the justice system “as a weapon” against these protesters.

Thankfully, the elections have proceeded peacefully so far. But Bolivia is like a powder keg and the stakes remain high.

As the pandemic rages and Latin America remains in the grip of economic decline, Arce’s new administration will face an uphill struggle . The October 18 vote is not the last word and the powerful interests behind the toppling of Morales remain in the shadows. Bolivian society continues to be divided and its liberal democracy fragile.

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