The morning of October 23* President Evo Morales held a press conference saying that there is a coup taking place in Bolivia and calling for international solidarity to defend the ‘process of change’ in Bolivia.
With deep regret, as I was part of the government between 2006 and 2011, I must disagree completely with Evo Morales statement. It is certainly true that Bolivia is in a state of extreme polarization and social unrest. The buildings of various departmental electoral courts have been set on fire and there are massive mobilizations throughout the country.
What is the source for the social unrest that could lead to even worse scenes of violence? Is it possible that Bolivia is living through the fifth stage of a ‘soft coup’ against President Morales promoted by imperialism and Carlos Mesa [the main opposition candidate] as has been suggested by a former government Minister?
The underlying reason why hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, though, is the failure of Evo Morales to respect a referendum held on 21 February 2016 [which proposed a constitutional amendment to allow another term of office]. Then 51.3% of the Bolivian population who voted said NO to the possibility of a fourth term of office for Evo Morales and his vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera. Initially Evo Morales recognized the result of the binding referendum and did not formally question it. But then he began to discredit the result saying the defeat was due to lies by Zapata: his ex-girlfriend who said they had a son he had not recognized, who then died and now says never existed. In sum, it was a whole soap opera linked to a corruption case at a time when his ex-girlfriend was manager of a Chinese company CAMC and was doing deals from the first lady office and for which she now has been imprisoned.
Then at the end of 2017, the members of the Constitutional Tribunal emitted a decision in which they stated that preventing Evo Morales and Alvaro Garcia Linera from standing for reelection violated their human rights. In other words, the Constitutional Tribunal by dismissing the referendum result undermined the constitution’s own articles which prohibited another electoral term.
At the end of 2018, the electoral commission and parliament approved a rushed law that enabled for the first time primary elections in Bolivia. The goal of these primaries was not to deepen the internal democracy of parties, but rather to make official the candidacy of Evo Morales and Alvaro Garcia Linera. These primaries cost millions of dollars with no purpose. In every party, there was only one candidate to vote for. Later, even though the law did not allow for changing the candidates chosen during the primaries, the electoral commission permitted people who had not participated to stand. This was the case for an evangelical candidate who is a mixture of Fujimori and Bolsanaro and who now stands in third place in terms of votes.
The election campaign, to stay the least, was extremely unbalanced: public employees were forced to attend the governing party rallies, Evo offered public works in exchange for votes, all the means of the state were used to support the government campaigns, and so on.
Even though in the weeks before elections, major rallies in the principal cities of Bolivia refused to recognize Evo’s candidacy for his violation of the 2016 referendum, still around 90% of the Bolivian population turned out to vote.
In the elections, Evo came first and Carlos Mesa second. On the night of 20 October at 19:40, the Reporting of Preliminary Election Results (TREP) by the Electoral Commission said that based on 83% of recorded votes, Evo had 45% of the votes and Mesa 38%. Minutes later the only company authorized by the electoral commission to carry out quick counts, and which had carried out polls favourable to the government, said that Evo had obtained 44% and Mesa 39% of the votes. Based on these results, Bolivia would have to move to a second round as this is required if the difference between first and second place is less than 10 points. Mesa declared that he would stand for the second round, while Evo said he was confident he would still win outright in the first round given that 17% of the votes had yet to be counted.
On the night of 20 October, without any explanation, TREP stopped updating the electoral count. Anxiety began to grow among various sectors of the population. The next day, 21 October, at 6pm, TREP started to work again, declaring that with 96% of the votes counted, Evo’s advantage over Mesa was 10.11%. In other words, there would be no second round. Anger and indignation exploded onto various city streets. In Sucre, the police joined protestors. Fires, violence, protests and fights between Bolivians erupted. On the 21st and the next day, the departmental member and the vice president of the electoral commission resigned, with the latter questioning the temporary suspension of the count. On Thursday, October 24, after several interruptions and observations, the official counting exceeded 10 points of difference between the first and the second*.
Carlos Mesa is a journalist who was the vice president under the neoliberal government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. If Evo had not forced his candidacy and his reelection, Mesa would have just been another candidate or may not have even stood. Instead the population opposed to Evo concentrated their votes in favour of Mesa. Evo created his nemesis and polarized society around the issue of reelection. Alvaro Garcia Linera has raised tension saying this is a fight between q’aras (whites) against indigenous peoples. Without doubt Evo has stronger support in rural areas and Mesa more support in cities, but both forces are made up of mestizo and indigenous faces. It is very dangerous to encourage a confrontation based on racial framing.
This conflict, which has lasted several years, favours sectors of the right. And the US embassy is certainly making its own plans related to it. But the underlying cause of the conflict does not lie with them. Nothing of this kind would have happened if Evo had not refused to recognize the referendum which said NO to his reelection, and if he hadn’t forced an election based on the argument that his human right to be elected was more important than the constitution and the will of the people.
I don’t want to go into other issues which are also important such as the economic situation of the country, the rights of Mother Earth, the state of social movements and the reconfiguration of the burgeoisie in Bolivia. Soon we will be able to continue the conversation on these issues. But for the moment, I only want to ask you to consider the Bolivian situation dispassionately and take a decision based on your conscience and principles. In my case, I will continue asking for the impossible which is the only possible: That Evo recognized the referendum of 21 February and stops insisting on his reelection to prevent blood running on our streets.
La Paz, October 23, 1605
* The dates and figures have been updated as of October 24.