It was almost midnight on October 20, 2019, when the last national elections of the Bolivia, and the country still did not know if Evo Morales would remain in the Presidency.
A year after the controversial election was canceled, Bolivians return to the polls this Sunday to decide who will be the first elected president after Morales’ nearly 14 years of rule and after Jeanine Áñez’s interim term.
Morales resigned on November 10 amid a social mobilization that, added to the mutiny of most Bolivian police and the request for resignation made by the Armed Forces, ended up removing him from power.
After a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic, this Sunday’s elections arrive with the party founded by Morales, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), as a favorite in the polls, with candidate Luis Arce Catacora.
Catacora was Morales Minister of Economy and Finance for almost his entire term (except for two years due to cancer) and leads the voting intentions, but in a very different situation from the time when MAS’s victory was guaranteed with more than 60 % of votes.
Opinion polls in Bolivia put Carlos Mesa in second place, a former president and journalist who, since 2019, has become MAS’s biggest opponent. And in third place comes Luis Fernando Camacho, known as the “Bolivian Bolsonaro” and one of the leaders of the revolt that contributed to Morales’ downfall.
What happened in the last elections?
Morales resigned as president 21 days after last year’s elections, amid a wave of street protests accusing him of electoral fraud.
An audit carried out by the Organization of American States (OAS) found that voting irregularities had occurred and that the results were unreliable.
However, the OAS did not find any fraud, and several academic studies in 2020 analyzed the method used by the entity and concluded that the organization’s analyzes were incorrect.
However, the OAS audit remains one of the main arguments of Morales’ detractors who accuse him of cheating in the 2019 elections.
A European Union observer mission even proposed holding a second round. Both events multiplied the susceptibility and the political crisis of the time.
On November 10, hours after the preliminary results of that OAS audit, Morales resigned from the presidency, reporting that he was the victim of a coup.
Two days later, Jeanine Áñez took office, and his inauguration was endorsed by the Constitutional Court of Bolivia. Less than 48 hours after greeting the Government Palace, she told BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language service, that her main objective was to call for new elections and that she would not run for them.
However, in January of this year, she took the opposite decision and decided to be a candidate, at a time when the polls gave her high approval ratings.
Áñez ended up resigning his candidacy in late September, given his poor performance in the polls. She said she did it so that “Evo wouldn’t come back”.
A similar decision was made by two other political parties that withdrew their candidacies less than two weeks before the elections.
During the transitional government, decisions were made that went beyond the restoration of a constitutional mandate. For example, much of the diplomatic service has been changed, and relations with countries like Cuba and Venezuela have been severed.
And changes in government office holders have been constant and have not been free from corruption scandals.
Was it a coup or not?
Since Morales’ resignation, the controversy over whether his departure was a coup or not has been at the center of political polarization in the country.
“Coup” is one of the words that the ex-president insistently repeats, and his followers support him. Morales is now in Argentina, after initially going to Mexico and passing through Cuba.
Morales was cornered to such an extent that the announcement of his resignation was made in Chapare (central Bolivia), where he was always invincible at the polls.
With thousands of his followers on alert, he said the police and the military had abandoned him and assured him that the coup against him had been successful.
A few days earlier there was a major police riot, and in the hours before his fall the Armed Forces “suggested” that he stay away.
The country’s largest union center has also called for his resignation, and protests against him have been intense for three weeks, leaving cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz paralyzed.
Sebastián Michel, Morales’ former deputy minister and now a spokesman for the Catacora campaign, lists different reasons he says have resulted in the success of what he calls a coup against the former president.
“It was a political conspiracy in which bribes were made to commanders of the Armed Forces and the National Police. It is not a coup for all the military, but for some commanders,” he told BBC News Mundo.
Michel believes that what happened has caused a significant loss of the military’s legitimacy vis-à-vis Bolivian society and that for this reason “they are repudiated on the street”.
“A central element is that the Armed Forces cannot ask for the resignation of a government. It is the same as if you were on the street and a thief with a gun came up to you and asked for your wallet. When you hand it over, it is not a voluntary transfer, he is stealing from you “, he adds.
The spokesman includes among his arguments the controversial presidential succession that brought Áñez to power and the deaths that occurred in the days after Morales’ resignation, which have not yet been clarified.
‘Recovery of democracy’
Very different from the reading of the party spokesman for Evo Morales is the opinion of Javier Issa, current deputy minister of the Interior Regime of Bolivia.
“The succession was constitutional. At no time was there a coup. There are express resignations from the former president, the former vice president and the former president of the Senate,” he tells BBC News Mundo.
Issa adds that what happened a year ago was an act of “recovery of democracy”, since, he says, MAS had “created a scheme to govern for much longer”.
“There was no independence of powers when Mr. Morales was president. All powers and institutions were at the service of the warlord,” he says.
Issa says that during Evo’s 14 years of rule, lawsuits were “mounted” against all political opponents. “They judicialized the policy,” he concludes.
More than twenty people died in the social conflicts that broke out after Morales’ resignation, and the Áñez government is questioned for that.
There were also at least two deaths before the resignation of the former president, but international bodies note a difference: state security forces participated in subsequent events.
“There are strong indications of excessive and disproportionate use of force by the military and the police. Therefore, our appeal is to clarify these facts,” said María José Veramendi, researcher at Amnesty International for South America.
The specialist coordinated a team that did fieldwork with the victims’ relatives, judicial and government authorities. She points out that a presidential decree that at the time exempted the Armed Forces from criminal responsibility is “a violation of international law”.
“Unfortunately, in the period it was in effect, deaths occurred,” he adds.
Veramendi recalls, however, that also during the term of Morales and his predecessors there were also human rights violations.
“Everyone must be investigated and punished. In our report, we expressly state that certain actions took place before the October 20, 2019 elections. Therefore, the impunity crisis in the country must be faced,” he says.
And the coronavirus?
Less than five months after the political earthquake that hit Bolivia, the coronavirus arrived in the country and changed everything.
Elections to choose Morales’ successor would take place in early May, then were postponed to August and finally will be held on October 18, 2020.
The quarantine and restrictions to avoid contagion meant a terrible blow to the country’s economy and the financial situation of Bolivians.
The main demand of Morales’ supporters was to hold the elections as soon as possible to “redirect the country”. But with the covid-19, the political battle focused on the responsibilities for the health emergency.
The current government says that Morales has left a legacy of little investment in health, while supporters of the former president say that the Áñez government is being incompetent in dealing with the health crisis and the economic crisis.
Morales has not ceased to be a reference in Bolivian politics and his influence is far from disappearing.
In one of his most recent public speeches, he said that if his party wins the elections, “the next day” he will be back in Bolivia.
However, several union leaders and farmers believe that it is time to turn the page and build new leaders.
Even his party’s candidate repeats that it will be he who will rule Bolivia in the event of victory, not the former president.
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