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What’s at Stake in Sunday’s Elections in Bolivia

The latest polls agree that a second round is probable, although they also don’t discount a first-round victory for the MAS party

In the short-term perspective, the events of October and November 2019 struck a serious blow to Bolivian democracy. During those months, the electoral process was annulled due to a series of irregularities. From voting day until the resignation of former president Evo Morales, an atmosphere of tension reigned in the country. The latent polarization between sectors of Morales’ “Movement for Socialism” (MAS) party and those of the opposition became active confrontation.

Beginning in March 2020, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic added to these factors. The effects of this on health, the economy, education and governability heightened the evident disconnects or open fractures between the different levels of government.

Due to the measures implemented to contain the virus, the general elections originally scheduled for May 3rd had to be postponed repeatedly. This came amid growing tensions. On more than one occasion, there were violent demonstrations that threatened the country’s institutional stability and peaceful coexistence.

Discredited public powers seek new legitimacy

The 2020 electoral process is fundamental for reestablishing the legitimacy of the organs of public power. It’s also necessary for social stability. It can be expected, although not completely assured, that it will bring a kind of hiatus among the people, in terms of their urgent needs. This would give the new government time to install itself and adopt the first measures to face up to the serious crisis facing the country.

On the other hand, adequate management of the ongoing electoral process is essential. The OEP [“Plurinational Electoral Organ”, in charge of Bolivian elections] must recover its credibility as a state power. This is of primary importance, even beyond the legitimate election of public authorities. Otherwise, the capability Bolivian society has shown since democracy was reestablished in October 1982 to resolve its deep political, social, economic and regional controversies via the ballot box is in doubt.

This Sunday’s choice: What and how?

The October 18 national elections will decide the principal Executive and Legislative authorities.  Bolivia’s President and Vice President are elected by direct, popular vote. The same is true of the senators and deputies who serve in the Bolivian congress, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. These will be chosen at the same time.

Under the Bolivian system, there are three possible paths to winning the presidency and vice presidency. The first route is for the contending pair to win at least 51% of the popular vote. That would decide the election in the first round. The second possibility is that one party obtains at least 40% of the valid votes, plus at least 10 percentage points ahead of the second-place candidates. That would also be construed as a first-round victory.  Failing either of these things, the country must schedule a second electoral round, in which the two candidates receiving the most votes face off.  The presidential candidacy heads the list of a large part of the members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

Bolivia’s two chamber legistature

Bolivia has an asymmetrical two-chamber legislative system. The Chamber of Senators is made up of territorial representatives with the 36 members distributed equally among the 9 departments. Its members are chosen from closed party lists that accompany the voting for the presidential candidate. The seats are then distributed according to a directly proportional formula.

The Chamber of Deputies is chosen under the criteria of populational representation. The number of candidates from each department varies according to the population of that department, with a minimum of five deputies per department. Of the 130 members, seven seats are reserved for indigenous minorities through special constituencies.

Finally, nine supra-state representatives are elected. These members of the legislature don’t have the right to vote. All members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly are elected for a period of five years. Party lists must, by statute, alternate between men and women.

The eight initial candidates for the presidency were the following:

  • Maria Baya – Nationalist Democratic Action (AND)
  • Carlos Mesa – Community of Citizens (CC)
  • Luis Fernando Camacho – CREEMOS
  • Chi Hyun Chung – Front for Victory (FPV)
  • Jeanine Anez [current interim president] – JUNTOS
  • Jorge Quiroga – Liberty and Democracy (LIBRE 21)
  • Luis Arce – Movement for Socialism (MAS-IPSP)
  • Feliciano Mamani – Party of Bolivian National Action (PAN-BOL)

From these eight initial contenders, the JUNTOS alliance and the LIBRE 21 withdrew. According to the polls only three of the candidacies that are still in the race are actually relevant and likely to achieve any significant presence in the Legislative Assembly.

Covid-19 took its toll on the campaign

Recurring central themes of the campaign include the recuperation and diversification of the economy, a solid health system, science and technology education, and the transparency of public administration given the endemic corruption.  All of these are deeply marked by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, though no less important, there’s a strong accent on the need to recover the democratic institutions. This has been especially prominent among the forces opposing MAS. These institutions were greatly eroded during the MAS government, and also during the current transition government.

At the beginning of 2020, the Electoral Council enjoyed a high level of confidence. Even as trust in the national government under President Anez began to drop, some 61% of the population said that they trusted the OEP to oversee a clean and transparent electoral process.

However, the repeated postponements of voting and the intense campaigns to discredit it, from both the MAS and the party of President Anez, plus some major opinion influencers, have succeeded in significantly eroding that trust.

The slur campaigns were concentrated against the Electoral Council’s president, Salvador Romero.  By the beginning of October, only 40.4% of the population gave the OEP a vote of confidence. Another 50% distrusted its actions.

The latest polls: voter intentions and the undecided

The latest polls coincide on the likelihood of a second round. However, they don’t discount the possibility of a MAS victory in the first round.

One crucial statistic is that of the “undecided”, who are estimated at about 19%. They’re the ones that could determine a first-round victory, if the decide in favor of the MAS party. One interesting survey came from the Pagina Siete group. It’s the only poll that gives Carlos Mesa of the Comunidad Ciudadana Party (CC) the possibility of emerging as frontrunner in the first round, although not with a sufficient margin to directly win the presidency.

The challenges facing a democracy that’s been deteriorating for at least the last 20 years; the traumatic events of October and November of 2019; the arrival of the pandemic with its costs and challenges; the economy; governability; and the ongoing electoral process itself are all on the table. Adding to these challenges is the growing citizen mistrust of politics and its institutions. All of this makes this electoral process critical, as much for the democratic institutions as for the relationship between citizens and their political system.

Everything indicates that the next government will have to take on deep reforms in all areas of the public agenda. That requires a great capacity to forge agreements among the different political actors. Also, to reach agreements between them and the diverse and ever more demanding and mobilized organizations of civil society.

*Regional director of IDEA international. www.idea.int. First published in Aristegui Noticias

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