Bolivia: New Elections are Not Enough

On October 20th, after a day of peaceful elections, the government of Evo Morales began one of the most grotesque and obvious frauds in the recent history of the country. This was confirmed today by the Organization of American States, but it was something the people already knew; that’s why they took to the streets. The election fraud provoked a feeling of anger, as does the discretionary use of power the MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) has exercised in past years.

Let’s go back to February 21, 2016, the day of another election convened by the MAS, when the Bolivian people voted not to modify the Constitution to allow Morales to stand for another term. The government ignored the popular sovereignty expressed in the voting booths, and allowed Morales to stand for re-election using an absurd appeal to the constitution (the Constitutional Court determined that indefinite re-election is a human right).

This was present in our collective memory, along with a series of other aggressions. Aggressions towards diverse popular sectors, and especially Indigenous communities; new alliances with national and transnational economic elites; creeping authoritarianism; empty and untethered revolutionary discourse; and the cynicism with which the government repeatedly lied. All of this together meant that when it came to the October elections, the Bolivian people would not let another abuse by those in power stand.

Something that we’ve learned in the history of Bolivia after the military governments is that there is a desire to search for democratic solutions in the face of growing authoritarianism–and it doesn’t matter if it is limited, liberal democracy. These democratic solutions then allow the people to undo the power of the government. 

Demonstrations in La Paz, Bolivia against electoral fraud and the government of Evo Morales. Photo: Paulo Fabre, Wikimedia Commons.

In the face of election fraud in Bolivia, the people went into the streets demanding democracy be respected, a demand the government wanted to usurp. The unrest that flooded Bolivia over the past weeks surpassed the dogmatic rhetoric of the progressive left, which fails to understand processes of struggle from below. This unrest was related to the desire to recuperate the basic principles of democracy (the same principles which gave the MAS the presidency to begin with).

As María Galindo has pointed out, most of those who voted for Carlos Mesa didn’t do so in order for him to become president, rather, they did so in order that Evo would stop being president. This was a pragmatic decision in the face of a democracy under threat, meant to open a new historical moment in which the MAS would no longer be the hegemonic party. That’s what led the government, with their fraud and their refusal to accept run off elections, to raise the spectre of the extreme right and promote violence. 

Fernando Camacho, with his conservative, fanatical discourse, was a nobody before the confrontations started. Prior to October 20, the conservative and reactionary currents in the country didn’t have anywhere near the centrality that they do today. It was the Morales government that revived the “old right,” because it needed to paint those accusing it of fraud as an antagonistic enemy. But no: we are millions, we who are not on the right and who denounce and stand against the fraud.

We know that using violence has been a strategy of the government in certain critical moments. Black January, El Porvenir, and the killing of Viceminister Illanes were all actions of a government that provokes violence in order to use crushing force to discipline those who go against its interests. 

Isn’t that what the government has been doing over these past days, provoking a bloodbath so that they could call out a coup d’état and displace the discussion of electoral fraud? Isn’t that what they tried to do when a violent mob was blamed for the–totally unjustifiable–attack on the mayor of Vinto, which was shown on all of the television screens in the nation, while there was total silence about the killing of a 20 year old man from the opposition to the government (the Vice President even lied about his killing).

The government appears to enjoy creating martyrs with the lives of others, doesn’t it? It sought to cover up fraud with blood. This violence is theirs, as it was during the most repressive and reactionary governments in Bolivia. The violence of the past weeks was a political calculation, which is totally unacceptable.

The first report of the OAS is not a victory, rather, it deepens our rage and pain, for a number of reasons: 1) it confirms what we all knew in Bolivia, and what the government knew: there was fraud; 2) because over the past days three people have been killed, and hundreds wounded, and the government defended the fraud, deepening violence; 3) because the government purposefully invoked Bolivia’s demons: racism and discrimination, and the polarization of the most profound and reactionary hatreds, strengthening the rancid right wing; 4) because people who we thought were comrades in different parts of Latin America needed the OAS come and say there was fraud (even such, some refuse to believe it), in order to be able to recognize the discontent in Bolivia and stand in solidarity with Bolivians in this moment. The desire to hold up an idealized Evo de-legitimizes ongoing social struggles inside Bolivia. This dogmatic, colonial and paternalistic attitude must be examined.

After the OAS report began to circulate on social media this morning, President Morales held a press conference in which he called for new elections and said that  new representatives would be named to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). He didn’t say anything else. It is remarkable that Morales thinks that this will be enough. Who will elect the new magistrates to the TSE? Will it be the same parliament that elected those who oversaw the fraud? Does Evo think that he should stand as candidate again, and continue to ignore the referendum of February 21, 2016? How will the fraud be investigated in Bolivia? Those are just some of the many questions we have in this moment.

But the president didn’t say anything else. Does he really think he can just erase what happened and start again? Because that’s not likely to happen.

In this moment, the president’s arrogance isn’t helping. If Evo wants to stay in office until January 21 (when his current mandate ends), he needs to recognize the discontent in Bolivian society, recognize that people are demanding change, and respond to the people. Electoral fraud, and everything it signifies, doesn’t go away because of a press conference. It appears the government doesn’t have the intention of addressing any of this: the leaders of the MAS are angry because we caught them cheating, and like wounded machos who have been outed, they want to punish us for that.

That’s why it didn’t surprise me that after the president’s press conference this morning, the demand for Morales to resign remained. To make clear: no one is calling for a coup d’état. We have to go beyond the noise of the ultra-right reactionaries: the Bolivian people are wise enough to take down a government according to the Constitution. 

In 2005 Carlos Mesa was removed from office through struggle, and constitutional succession brought Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé to the presidency. Many voices are asking for that now, for constitutional succession (which would have to skip the vice president, so that either the president of the senate or the president of the congress would become interim president). This would allow for the production of some means of social control over the electoral process, which would create the conditions for a constitutional exit to the current confrontations via free and fair elections.

 Of course, we are all worried about the renewal of the conservative right that the government invoked and empowered, but we will not concern ourselves with them, rather, we must deal with the MAS. What happens next will depend, to a large extent, on the government’s attitude. What is worth making clear is that any further act of violence that leads to bloodshed is the responsibility of this government, which appears to want to stay in power through any means necessary.

Author Bio:

Huascar Salazar Lohman is a Bolivian economist whose research is focussed on community struggles.