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The Organizers of the Bolivian Coup Will Never Accept Free Elections

Almost a year since the military coup against Evo Morales, today Bolivians will finally get to vote on a new president. But the forces that overthrew Morales have done everything they can to stop his Movement Toward Socialism to return to power through a free and fair election.

Demonstrators in El Alto, Bolivia hold flags with the face of former president Evo Morales during a MAS closing rally ahead of the presidential elections taking place on October 18, 2020. (Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty Images)

As Bolivia votes on October 18 — in an election delayed three times by Jeanine Áñez’s de facto government — ousted president Evo Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) enjoys a strong poll lead. While Áñez’s own decision to pull out of the race has strengthened likely second-place finisher Carlos Mesa, every single opinion poll has pointed to MAS’s candidate, Luis Arce Catacora, either winning the presidency in the first round or, at the very least, obtaining a plurality of votes.

To win in the first round and avoid a run-off vote, the top candidate would need 40 percent support plus a ten-point lead. In recent days, private media channel UNITEL broadcast a Ciesmori poll showing MAS’s Arce would fall just short of this — taking 42.2 percent, followed by Mesa on 33.1 percent and the far-right Luis Fernando Camacho on 16.7 percent. It also forecast that MAS would obtain a majority in six out of nine regions, while Santa Cruz would go to Camacho and the Tarija and Chuquisaca regions to Mesa. Tu Voto Cuenta predicted a similar result, but CELAG forecast that Arce will take 44.4 percent, giving him a more than ten-point lead over Mesa on 34 percent.

Such surveys may not be entirely reliable — pollsters have traditionally ignored the extent to which rural areas and the large Bolivian communities abroad, particularly in Argentina and Brazil, support MAS. This would imply that the final vote for MAS under normal circumstances and in a fair election may be closer to the 47 percent obtained by Morales last October — or even higher given the widespread unpopularity of the neoliberal measures implemented by the Áñez regime over the last year, as opposed to Arce’s image as the chief architect of fourteen years of economic growth and political stability.

Yet these are not normal circumstances, and fair elections are by no means guaranteed. The possibility of the return of a socialist government has haunted the coup regime and its allies since Morales’s ouster on November 10, 2019. The Right’s ten-month spell in power carries with it a very long list of corruption cases, human rights abuses, violations of the Constitution, a devastating mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a severe economic crisis exacerbated by the attempts to privatize some of Bolivia’s major public-sector industries, particularly the YPFB gas and oil company nationalized under Morales’s government in 2006. If MAS were ever to return to power, this would likely carry an equally long list of trials and convictions.

As such, over the past ten months, both the government and the right-wing opposition have actively implemented a number of measures to prevent this from happening. This has meant steps not just to undermine MAS’s electoral support, but to thwart its candidates’ participation outright — and even to engineer a possible second military coup in the event of Arce’s victory.

Voter Suppression

The government disqualified more than 51,255 Bolivians abroad from being registered to vote, half of them currently resident in Argentina. The TSE (Supreme Electoral Tribunal) already disqualified 147,000 within Bolivia from the voter rolls this March. In the current conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine, attempts to reregister for the vote are near impossible. As we have said, the vote from abroad, particularly elsewhere in Latin America, has traditionally benefited MAS since most Bolivian communities in those countries emigrated during the political and economic crises of the neoliberal 1990s and 2000s and thus recognize the achievements of Evo’s administration.

Another area highly likely to suffer from attempts at voter suppression are Bolivia’s rural regions. The vast majority of residents in the countryside, particularly in the altiplano provinces of La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, and Potosí, have traditionally voted for MAS due to the enormous economic change that the government of Evo Morales brought them through social programs and investment in infrastructure, health, and education. In the current conditions created by the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis brought on by the Áñez regime’s budget-slashing measures, the organization of the voting process has been greatly complicated, particularly with the voting procedures abroad.

The tropical province of Chapare in Cochabamba, a traditional MAS stronghold, has been particularly targeted since the coup. A rising number of military exercises and troop movements has been reported there throughout the last year — and according to the local coca growers’ union leaders, the intention is to intimidate the rural population. This region also faced economic blockade from the government over April, when gasoline and petrol deliveries were blocked, supposedly as pressure to deal with the problem of “narco-trafficking.” The minister of government, Arturo Murillo, has stated that no voting ballots will be provided for the region unless the Bolivian police are allowed to resume patrolling the area. The National Police were previously expelled from the region due to the history of persecution against union leaders and for heavy corruption within their ranks.

Monitoring

Doubts over the process also concern the partiality of the agencies supposedly meant to ensure a fair contest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Washington-funded agency banned from operating in Bolivia under the Morales government, has been invited by the Áñez regime to oversee and monitor the elections. USAID, together with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), has a long history of backing pro-US political and civil society groups through direct funding, as well as validating fraudulent electoral processes that benefit right-wing candidates, as with the elections in Honduras in 2017. Furthermore, a “Citizens’ Observers’” group comprising fourteen private civil society associations has been organized with both USAID and NED funds in order to oversee the electoral process and provide reports forty-eight hours following the election.

The problem extends to Bolivia’s own Supreme Electoral Tribunal, whose president, Salvador Romero, is a close friend of candidate and former president Carlos Mesa, and was appointed by him as head of the National Electoral Court (CNE) in 2003. He also has a long history of cooperation with various US-funded agencies across Latin America and the Organization of American States (OAS). Romero was present in Honduras in 2011–14, serving as the head of the NED-funded National Institute of Democracy (NDI) and overseeing the fraudulent 2013 elections, following the coup in that country. In the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, it was revealed that Romero previously acted as an informant for the former US ambassador, Philip Goldberg, between 2006 and 2008. It seems unlikely he will take a neutral stance toward the current electoral process or ratify the likely victory of MAS in the first round.

The TSE has replaced the preliminary counting system used during the October 2019 elections, the TREP, with a new system sanctioned by the United Nations, known as DIREPRE. Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) associate Jake Johnson — part of the team of researchers who proved that the OAS falsified its claims about fraud during last year’s elections — has pointed out that the new system would be less transparent than TREP and will make it impossible for observers to quickly check the accuracy of the vote by comparing hard copies of tally sheets to images posted online.

At the same time, the TSE has been very reluctant in allowing various international organizations to act as official observers of the election. The most prominent example is that of the Progressive International, whose initial request was denied by the electoral tribunal without any concrete explanation. Although it was eventually approved, the delay in the decision made preparations for the observer mission much more complicated.

The government is, instead, coordinating the election process with OAS, whose own observation of the October 2019 process and the false claims that Morales’s victory was fraudulent played an enormous role in legitimizing the coup in the days that followed. The visit by Murillo to the United States and the meeting with the OAS secretary-general, Luis Almagro, further points to the close collaboration of the Áñez regime with OAS authorities. Almagro has alleged that MAS will attempt to “steal” the election; according to CEPR director Mark Weisbrot, this prepares the ground to again invoke the OAS Charter and international law in order to overturn the result based on false data.

Attacks on Candidates

There have been numerous attempts at blocking MAS and its various leaders from participating in the elections. Morales and the former foreign minister, Diego Pary Rodríguez, were both disqualified from standing as Senate candidates in the regions of Cochabamba and Potosí, respectively, despite submitting all the required legal documents. The candidate for the senate in Cochabamba, union leader Andrónico Rodríguez, has also faced attempts at police persecution.

MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce Catacora was himself threatened with disqualification numerous times both prior to and during the current election campaign. In July, his candidacy — and MAS’s participation in general — risked being eliminated based on an alleged “violation of electoral law”; Arce countered that with polls indicating that MAS is the likely winner, perhaps his opponents deemed this itself “illegal” under Bolivian electoral law. The TSE ruled in favor of MAS on October 5, but opposition groups conducted violent protests against both MAS and the electoral authorities in the city of Sucre.

A basic disposition toward silencing MAS also spreads to media — and the government control of it. Since the start of the coup, both Bolivian and foreign journalists have been persecuted while public and private media have consistently run reports and stories favoring either the current de facto government or the major figures of the right-wing opposition, such as Carlos Mesa. Both Telesur and RT had had their broadcasting licenses revoked during the weeks following the coup, while fifty-three community radio stations were closed by the Áñez regime in January. Argentinean journalists from the TN private media channel were harassed by the pro-coup mobs, while another Argentine journalist, Sebastián Moro, was murdered during the coup itself. Private media, in coordination with the official positions of the Bolivian government, have also consistently run false stories against MAS, particularly during the mass protests in August to demand that the election go ahead.

Grimly, MAS leaders and activists have also faced armed attacks by various paramilitary groups and members of the far-right opposition over the last year. The Santa Cruz Youth Union (UJC), the Youth Resistance of Cochabamba (RJC), and the Resistance movement in La Paz have attacked MAS and their supporters on a number of occasions. Furthermore, the public defenders’ office has come under attack by a violent group called “Valkyria” due to the criticism of the human rights abuses of the Áñez regime. An atmosphere of violence and terrorism is unlikely to generate a genuinely fair election result.

These violent attacks could try to prevent MAS from resuming office even in the case of victory. Numerous reports have emerged of planned attempts to prevent a MAS return to power through a series of bombings and false-flag attacks, seeking to blame that party’s leadership for the violence — and thus to justify the cancellation of the results and an immediate takeover of the government by the military and members of the far right. Alarmingly, the government has also banned any public demonstrations forty-eight hours prior and following the election, ensuring that there is no social movement response to any allegations of fraud.

Whether Bolivia’s de facto government or its reactionary allies can win the election through fraud and intimidation — or will have to abort the result altogether through an eleventh-hour intervention by their allies in the military and the police — depends on one crucial factor, namely the strength of the country’s social and trade union movements. The protests this August demonstrated that even in the face of threats of severe repression and violence on the part of the state forces, the country’s historically powerful indigenous social organizations are capable of almost completely paralyzing the country. If any attempt is made to steal MAS’s victory, their intervention will be decisive.