While Bolivia’s first election of judicial authorities in 2011—the only one of its kind in Latin America—was a compelling novelty, the second edition held on December 3 of this year attracted much less attention, given that little had changed in terms of the players and the procedures. The outcome was therefore the same as it had been six months earlier: despite a voter turnout of 84.2%, nearly two-thirds of the ballots cast were blank or null and void. This figure was higher than the 2011 rate of 59.27%. Votes cast for one or more candidates decreased from 40.72% to 34.12%.
The main variations in this process were: the participation of the Bolivian university system, which was expected to act as a technical screen to improve the quality of the candidate selection process; the relaxing of the rules pertaining to the candidates, and the participation of a group of civil society organizations that closely monitored the process, offering comments and suggestions for its improvement.
Of these three changes, the one that most significantly affected the process was the third; indeed, some fifty organizations exercised citizen oversight over the different stages of the process, compiled information about what was happening, and made proposals for its development. The participation of some universities, on the other hand, was cause for controversy due to the delays and errors in their contribution. In addition, legally authorizing the candidates to appear in the media—although they were still barred from asking for votes—does not seem to have improved the public’s knowledge or image of those seeking to be elected, if evaluated in light of the increased number of ballots that were voided (50.9%) and blank (14.93%).
One regulatory change actually had the effect of reducing the number of women elected to senior positions in the justice system. In 2011, because of the legal requirement demanding parity, half of those elected were women; in 2017, only ten of the successful candidates were female.
The international missions that observed the process focused their remarks mainly on the day of the election, emphasizing the calm atmosphere and absence of incidents. UNASUR Coordinator Yolima Carrillo, for instance, was unstinting in her praise. Jan Mathanga of the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB) similarly congratulated Bolivia for the process, but allowed one criticism by noting a lack of information among voters, who were said to be unfamiliar with the content of the ballots and the merits of the various candidates.
The preliminary report of the electoral observation mission of the OAS, led by former Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Guillaume Long, was more detailed. After an extensive defense of the election procedure for the appointment of high court judges, the text underscored the political polarization of that process. In particular, it noted that the decision of the Plurinational Constitutional Court to allow President Morales to seek reelection after twelve years in power—handed down four days before the election—may have had an effect on this polarization. The mission praised “the efforts to lend greater professionalism and rigor to the assessment of the candidates’ merit and experience,” acknowledging the work done by the Legislative Assembly—which has been controversial, to say the least.
In the coming weeks, 26 high court judges will assume their positions in the Judicial Council, the Plurinational Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Agro-Environmental Court. Fifteen of them held “positions of trust” in Evo Morales’s administration, two as Vice Ministers. One judge elected to the Plurinational Constitutional Court in December was denounced by the government in September for having handed down a “minimum” sentence in a notorious case while serving as a Supreme Court Justice.
Various groups and platforms challenged the election based on the massive number of blank and voided ballots. These citizens’ groups, like the opposition parties, maintain that the election lacked legitimacy, given that it was decided by a minority of the electorate. Government spokespersons, on the other hand, assert that the election was an exercise in democracy. Bolivian law does not require a minimum number of valid votes for the results to be effective.
Little has changed in the outlook for the Bolivian justice system with this second election of judicial authorities, and not much is likely to change in the immediate future, despite the campaign promises made by some of those recently elected. In any case, based on these two elections held in the country, the lesson for the region seems to be that the election of judicial authorities does not necessarily lead to improvement.
Luis Pásara, Senior Fellow, DPLF