What Happened in Bolivia? Indefinite Reelection, Electoral Fraud, and Constitutional Succession

Ramiro Orias*

Versión en español aquí.

In order to understand what happened in Bolivia over the past few days, which have seen a serious escalation of violence in the midst of a political crisis that ended with the resignation of President Evo Morales, we need to go back to the 2009 political pact that paved the way for the adoption of a new national constitution. This constitution established that the president may be reelected to only one consecutive term, and that terms served prior to the entry into force of the new constitution shall be taken into account for the purposes of calculating new terms of office.

Despite the fact that the previous constitution, under which Morales was elected in 2005, established that when constitutional reform relates to the President’s term of office, the reform will not take effect until the following term—a provision that sought to prevent constitutional amendments benefitting those in power—Evo Morales managed to gain the necessary legal authorization for his candidacy and win a second election based on the argument that the previous constitution no longer applied to the new Plurinational State.

The same thing happened in 2010. A third presidential term was authorized and obtained, thanks to an interpretation of the Plurinational Constitutional Court, which ruled that terms prior to the entry into force of the new constitution should not be counted toward the president’s new terms of office, because the term limit of a single consecutive reelection is governed by the new constitution.

Aiming for his fourth consecutive term, Morales called for a constitutional referendum on February 21, 2016 to eliminate the prohibition against a new run for office. This time, the majority of voters rejected the proposed amendment, and so the constitutional ban on Morales’s fourth presidential bid was validated by the citizens themselves.

Despite his pledge to respect the will of the people, a constitutional challenge filed by legislators from Morales’s MAS party succeeded in having the Plurinational Constitutional Court—whose members the ruling majority had selected—rule on the “preferential application” of Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights to the constitutional articles limiting the president’s term of office to a single consecutive reelection. The Court’s decision was based on the notion that there is a “human right to run for reelection indefinitely” in the Americas, which various jurists have described as “constitutional fraud.”

This is how Evo Morales managed to run for a fourth term, after a process in which the Executive Branch and the Constitutional Court pressured the members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)—which had administered the February 21 referendum—threatening to criminally investigate them if they failed to qualify Evo Morales as a candidate. This led to the resignation of several members of the TSE and their replacement by new members, under an accelerated procedure led by the MAS-dominated Legislative Assembly.

Bolivians went to the polls on October 20, a peaceful and orderly election day with high voter turnout. That day, after the polls were closed, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal began to receive photographs of vote tallies through the Preliminary Election Results Transmission System (TREP), which provides preliminary results through the immediate photographic capture and digital transfer of the tally sheets from each polling station. This digitalization and registration process allowed the TSE to release a quick count report on 83.76% of verified tally sheets, which reflected a very stable national trend.

Evo Morales had 45.71% of the votes, while his main opponent, Carlos Mesa, had 37.84%. This margin pointed to the statistical likelihood of a runoff election, since the Bolivian Constitution establishes that if the winner fails to obtain a majority of 50% +1, or at least 40% of the vote and a margin greater than 10% over the second-place candidate, a second round of voting must be held.

The partial results published by the TSE at 83.76% of the vote count were consistent with the quick count of the television networks, universities, and civil society organizations monitoring the elections, as well as the projection of the OAS Observation Mission (MOE/OAS). However, doubt began to set in that same night when, after publishing its preliminary report, the TSE ordered a “news blackout” and for 23 hours stopped announcing the TREP results. The head of the Electoral Tribunal, María Eugenia Choque, ordered a halt to this process and when the results were once again released, updated TREP figures had jumped to show that 95.37% of the votes had been counted. The figures were: Morales 46.86% and Mesa 36.72%. Evo immediately declared himself the winner of the presidential election in the first round of voting.

The inexplicable news blackout, followed by the change in the vote margins, sparked widespread complaints of fraud and led to protests and citizen demonstrations, some of them violent, in which three regional offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in Potosí, Sucre, and Cobija were set on fire. On Tuesday, October 22, civic organizations and citizen platforms in defense of the vote called for an indefinite national strike, with street blockades and peaceful protests.

The MOE/OAS published its preliminary report and concluded that, in view of the irregularities found, a second round of voting was advisable. Notwithstanding this recommendation, Evo rejected any political solution and asked for patience until the TSE completed the official vote count, inviting the OAS to conduct an audit. On Friday 25, after the expedited final results, Morales was officially declared the first-round winner with 47.08% of the votes, as opposed to 36.51% for Mesa.

Citizens demonstrated in the streets for three weeks, under police control designed to prevent the excessive use of force against protestors. During the final week the conflict began to escalate, when President Morales called on his fellow party members to defend his electoral victory, and groups affiliated with the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) arrived in several cities armed with sticks and explosives with the intention of breaking through the blockades. Three demonstrators were killed, which intensified clashes between opposing social groups.

On Friday, November 8, there was a police riot in the city of Cochabamba, which spread to other units of the Bolivian Police. The police, withdrawn into their precincts and barracks, supported the citizen demonstrations by refusing to go out to control the protests. On the morning of Sunday, November 10, after a night of violent unrest throughout the country, the OAS released its preliminary election audit report, revealing evidence of tampering with the TREP, forged signatures and tally sheets, and an irregularity in the number of votes received by Morales in the last 5% of the count. It recommended holding new national elections and replacing the members of the TSE.

Evo Morales’s immediate reaction was to convene a political dialogue roundtable to facilitate new elections, but the country had already reached a point of no return. Several political figures, social organizations, and civic movements asked him to resign, and the Prosecutor General’s Office filed criminal charges against 36 TSE officials, including its top authorities, alleging election fraud.

On the afternoon of Sunday, November 10, the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces publicly addressed the President, indicating that the political conflict should be resolved politically, and that the armed forces would not repress the people. He suggested that Morales resign to bring peace to the country.

Hours later, President Morales announced his resignation, from the Chapare region, where his political career began, as did the Vice President, the President of the Senate, and the President of the House of Representatives. A power vacuum was created and a wave of violence was unleashed. The homes of Waldo Albarracín, President of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, and Casimira Lema, a journalist from TV Universitaria, were burned down. More than 60 buses belonging to the municipal transport company were also burned; several commercial establishments were destroyed and looted, as were the homes of ruling party governors and Evo Morales’s own house in Cochabamba.

The following day, Monday November 11, clashes between sympathizers and opponents of Evo Morales continued. The police, back in the streets, were unable to control the situation, and a march of Morales supporters armed with blunt objects (machetes, clubs, sticks) and with the cry of “This time, civil war!” began to descend from the city of El Alto towards La Paz, intending to physically occupy Plaza Murillo, headquarters of the Legislative Branch that would need to meet in order to accept Evo Morales’s resignation.

The Police Commander reported that his officers had been overtaken, noting that according to law, the armed forces should take to the streets to protect the city. After several hours of silence from the armed forces, the Vice President of the National Senate publicly called for the military to come out to prevent further clashes, saying that its commander would be held responsible if there were any more victims. That night, military forces finally went out to gain control of the situation and to quell the chaos and panic that was spreading in La Paz, the seat of government. At the same time, it was reported that Evo Morales had requested political asylum from Mexico. The Mexican government sent an official light aircraft to pick him up along with his principal associates, and after a stopover in Asunción, Paraguay, it continued on its way to the Mexican capital.

In response to those who assert that a “coup d’état” took place in Bolivia, it is important to clarify that in recent days the country experienced a citizen insurgency in defense of the right to vote, which, given the president’s bid for a fourth term and clear electoral fraud, demanded respect for democracy. After Evo Morales resigned and left the country indefinitely, the presidential succession proceeded in accordance with the Constitution, with the Second Vice President of the Senate, Jeanine Añez, assuming the presidency ipso facto. This procedure, as the Plurinational Constitutional Court itself has pointed out, preserves the principle of continuity of the State, according to which the functioning of the Executive Branch should not be suspended, thus negating the need for any express law or proclamation by any other entity: “Any other understanding could undermine the immediacy of the presidential succession,” causing the country to be left without a government.

The challenge facing Añez’s transition government now revolves around the selection of new TSE judges in order to guarantee that free, transparent, and fair elections are held soon.


*Senior Program Officer, DPLF

Photo: Paulo Fabre/Wikimedia Commons

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