Despite the fact that the regime installed by the coup d’état in November last year sought to delay the elections, Bolivia will hold elections on the 6th of September this year. In the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, MAS – the political party of ousted President Evo Morales – seeks to rebuild its political-social coalitions while the government has to deal with the consequences of its mismanagement of the health crisis, multiple corruption scandals, and deep divisions within the anti-MAS bloc.
Interim Bolivian president Jeanine Añez reluctantly announced the enactment of the law that establishes that the general elections must be held on Sunday, 6 September 2020. Initially, the elections were scheduled for May 3, but the pandemic caused its postponement because the country entered a mandatory quarantine in March.
This aggravated the political crisis that Bolivia has been experiencing since November last year, when President Evo Morales was overthrown through a coup d’etat that led to the formation of a “transitory government” whose central task was to call elections within 90 days.
Apart from the pandemic, the definition of September 6 as the date for the holding of the general elections is the result of a change in the political scene caused by two events: Añez’s unexpected announcement that she will contest the presidential election, and the gradual re-articulation of the Movement to Socialism (MAS).
At the end of January 2020, Añez’s party –Democrats– decided to run for the Presidency, which ended up breaking up the coalition that had overthrown Evo Morales. The anti-MAS bloc was divided among four candidates (Carlos Mesa for Comunidad Ciudadana, Luis Fernando Camacho for Creemos, Jorge Quiroga for Libre 21 and Añez for Juntos). And in this context of division, the MAS binomial –integrated by ex-ministers Luis Arce Catacora and David Choquehuanca– reaffirmed its first place in the polls. Evo Morales remains in exile in Argentina and will be arrested if he tries to return to Bolivia.
At first, the pandemic was favourable for Añez’s electoral campaign. However, the government’s mismanagement of the health crisis – characterized by corruption scandals, arbitrary management of the police and military forces, and the lack of agreement with society and with sub-national administrations – have weakened its image. For this reason, the Democrats – a party based in Santa Cruz that obtained 4% of votes in the elections last year – has continually favoured the indefinite postponement of the elections, alleging the danger of the pandemic and using a false slogan: “Health or elections”.
The double condition of president and candidate ceased to be an advantage for Añez, and the official strategy lost direction. In addition, the government faced obstacles from the National Parliament, which is still under the control of MAS. Without a doubt, the concept of ‘divided government’ –that is, when the president has no control over the Legislative Branch– is crucial to explain the current Bolivian political situation.
The majority of the MAS in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved the law that established the first Sunday of September as the limit for the conduct of the elections. Añez responded demanding to know what supporting epidemiological studies were taken into account to establish that date.
The response of the president of the Senate, Eva Copa, was decisive: if the interim president did not enact the law within ten days, she would do so, as authorized by the Constitution. The power struggle was thereby settled in favour of the MAS position as the interim president reluctantly decided to enact the law. In doing so, however, she blamed her rivals, particularly MAS but also ex-President Carlos Mesa, for the probable damage that could be caused by the pandemic in September.
According to the most recent polls, Añez could occupy second place in the pending presidential election, a position that is disputed with Carlos Mesa – another anti-MAS candidate, and would thereby compete in the run-off ballot with Arce, MAS candidate and favourite in the opinion polls.
On 30 April 30 the MAS-dominated Pluri-National Assembly approved the 2020 General Election Postponement Act, an act that was accompanied by the call for demonstrations and protests in several cities under the slogan “Elections now”.
The approval and promulgation of that law in late April was MAS’s first political initiative since the quarantine was implemented. With this action, it changed the political scenario and its political rivals began to reformulate their strategies, until then subordinated to government initiatives. The ruling party filed a demand that the law be declared unconstitutional, Mesa asked for a “national summit” to confront the pandemic, and Camacho declared that every night he would go out to pray at an altar in Santa Cruz, in an act of contempt for the government’s repressive management of the health crisis. The chips began to move more rapidly after the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Salvador Romero, declared that he would adjust the electoral calendar to the law.
The approval and promulgation of the 2020 General Elections Postponement Law at the end of April was the first sign of the rearticulation of MAS and the recovery of political initiative. At the same time, and incrementally, farmers’ and Indigenous organizations regrouped in a coordinating body, called the Unity Pact. The social movements were decisive actors in the origin of MAS as a “political instrument”, and suggests a strengthening of the political party’s electoral base after a period of stagnation and uncertainty.
Thereafter, the MAS has acted in a cohesive manner around the slogan “Elections now”, which has not however prevented it from showing some flexibility since the date originally proposed for the elections, August 2, was replaced by September 3 .
This decision to relax its position regarding the date of the elections was the second political initiative of MAS in this period and, again, forced its rivals to reformulate their strategies. In this way, the political parties had to assume a position and the result was the establishment of an agreement between the strategic actors of the electoral process. The parties accepted the call of the TSE that, in addition, fulfilled its initial plan to establish a time range for the conduct of the elections between the first week of June and September. This agreement was signed in early June, at the behest of the TSE and with the backing of external monitors (the United Nations, the European Union and the Catholic Church), and is particularly significant because it is the first political agreement in this period and, also, because the TSE has regained some of its institutional credibility.
In this context, the behaviour of the ruling party was surprising, as it again backed down on its decision to join the agreement promoted by the TSE. Añez declared that “postponing the elections for a month or two will not harm anyone”, although she also stated that he would “abide by everything established by the Electoral Tribunal because we also want elections.”
The ambiguity soon dissipated in the face of demands from powerful social sectors to end the delays. To the political actors –with the MAS and ‘Citizen Community’ taking the lead – were added multiple social actors with popular roots, among which the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) stands out, when it launched an ultimatum: “elections in September or social upheaval”. The government reaction was to announce the enactment of the law on the night of the 21st of June.
Thus, politics in Bolivia appears to be returning to its electoral channel with the objective of re-establishing a legitimate government and a renewed system of parties with the capacity to respond to the multidimensional crisis unleashed by the pandemicin accordance with the results emerging from the ballot box, possibly ending the social and political crisis caused by the rupture of the constitutional order in November of 2019. LINK
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