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Bolivia's Electoral Crisis: A Timeline

The crisis has roots in a leader’s efforts to stay in office beyond constitutional term limits. 

Bolivia’s disputed October 20 general elections produced an outcome that few would have predicted—the resignations of President Evo Morales, his vice president, many appointees and key lawmakers.  A little-known senator is now serving as interim president and has less than 90 days to arrange new elections.  To understand how it happened and appreciate the complexity of finding a solution, it’s useful to look at the events that took place before, during and after the contest. 

Click here to view an interactive timeline.  

Background

Evo Morales was first elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in a 2006 landslide victory. Like fellow socialist Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Morales re-wrote the constitution and then ran again under the new charter. However, that document limited the president to two terms.  Seeking re-election again in 2014, Morales obtained a ruling from the Constitutional Court that enabled him to extend his presidency, because his first term occurred under the old constitution.

Despite his re-election and the stable economy his administration oversaw, Morales’s popularity began to sag in the middle of his third term against the backdrop of a corruption scandal and accusations of creeping authoritarianism.  As a result, voters narrowly defeated a referendum in 2016 that would have allowed him to seek re-election for a third time.  Yet his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party nominated him anyway and a friendly Constitutional Court ruled that term limits infringed on his basic right to run for office—a decision that set the stage for a contentious contest on October 20. 

October General Election

Days before the vote, allegations surfaced of possible election irregularities.  One study showed a curious expansion in voter rolls among Morales supporters in certain strategic municipalities.  Yet on election day, citizens marked their ballots peacefully, while monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union observed the process and awaited the government’s Rapid Transmission of Preliminary Results.  To achieve a first-round victory, Morales would have needed to win at least 50 percent of the vote, or at least 40 percent with 10 percent more than his nearest rival.   

On election night, Morales claimed a first-round win before the quick count and official tallies were computed.  In fact, before the quick count advanced beyond 83 percent, internet service failed in the center where it was being tabulated. OAS observers noted the interruption and reported it to the media.  The outage lasted approximately 18 hours and blocked access to the server used to verify tally sheet data.  During the blackout, there was a change in tendency from pointing to a runoff with the second-place finisher Carlos Mesa, to Morales winning a slim first-round victory.  At the same time, Viaciencia SRL, a company the government licensed to perform an independent quick count, published results giving Morales 43.9 percent of the vote to Mesa’s 39.4 percent, less than the ten-point difference needed for Morales to claim a first-round win. 

Aftermath

While news of the lapse spread, vandals set fire to district electoral court buildings.  The next day, citizens discovered ballots and tallies in garbage bins in La Paz and Potosí, calling into question the custody of election materials. In the days that followed, evidence of ballot and tally sheet manipulation emerged. On October 22, Antonio Costas, the vice-president and spokesperson of the electoral tribunal, resigned. According to Costas, the decision to suspend the quick count had discredited “the entire electoral process, causing unnecessary social convulsion.”  Meanwhile, clashes between Morales supporters and opposition activists escalated in Bolivia’s major cities. 

After members of the OAS and European Union delegations met with Morales, the government agreed to allow an OAS team to evaluate the electoral process.  During the October 31 audit, more irregularities surfaced.  On November 5, the Santa Cruz College of Lawyers and Civic Solidarity Union presented an extensive list of fraud allegations to the evaluators. By November 8, Ethical Hacking Consultants, a company hired by the government to monitor the computer system used for its quick count, published findings detailing system weaknesses and a massive attack from a server outside the system. 

On November 10, the OAS concluded that it could not verify the official vote count result. “The manipulations to the computer system are of such magnitude that they must be deeply investigated by the Bolivian State to get to the bottom of and assign responsibility,” according to its findings. Backing away from his victory claim, President Morales called for new general elections and a new electoral tribunal, but did not say if he would run again.  Two government ministers and three MAS legislators announced their resignations, as well as María Eugenia Choque, president of the electoral tribunal. 

Government Shake Up

Hours later, Armed Forces Commander Williams Kalliman and National Police Chief Vladimir Yuri Calderón asked Morales to resign, as did Bolivian Workers Central President Juan Carlos Huarachi who distanced the union from the government and asked Evo to “to resign, if necessary, to pacify the country.” Later that day, President Morales flew to Chimoré in Chapare province, a MAS stronghold.

There he announced his resignation by video, ostensibly to curb social protests and feared attacks against MAS leaders, government officials and their families. Vice President Alvaro García Linera followed suit, as did the Senate president and first vice president, Chamber of Deputies president and president of the Supreme Court—all of them in the line of succession.  On November 11, a Mexican Air Force jet flew Morales, García Linera and former Health Minister Ariana Campero to Mexico where they received asylum. 

In the resulting power vacuum, the Senate’s Second Vice President Jeanine Áñez from the opposition Democratic Social Movement party declared herself interim president during a legislative session on November 12 that was boycotted by MAS lawmakers. Bolivia’s Constitutional Court upheld her assumption of leadership, however temporary, as the Bolivian constitution states that new elections must be held within 90 days.

Where to Now?

A revote may be a tall order given the polarization between what had been the MAS under Evo Morales and the various opposition parties.  The MAS still maintains a majority in both houses of congress.  And from exile in Mexico, Morales has talked with reporters, maintaining his view that a coup forced him out. Likewise, he’s continued to assert his innocence in committing fraud, and has expressed willingness to return to Bolivia not as a candidate, but to restore stability.

How this plays out may depend on a number of factors: an investigation to determine what electoral crimes occurred and who committed them, the extent to which constitutional order can be maintained in the runup to fresh elections and the political will among all factions and parties to find a way to lower tensions and build mutual trust. By all accounts, another election is needed—one that is free, fair, competitive and open to citizens from all sectors to uphold the sanctity of the citizens’ choice and Bolivia’s hope for a democratic future.