Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 146, 19 August 2020

Bolivia: Protests against the Election postponement
Samreen Wani

In the news
On 11 August, various worker and indigenous groups blockaded the roads and highways in Bolivia against the decision of the interim government (led by Jeanine Anez) to postpone the elections for the third time citing health concerns. Supporters of the deposed populist leader Evo Morales barricaded nearly 150 points across the country which caused massive inconvenience in deliveries of food and medical supplies. Some protestors called for the resignation of President Anez and demanded elections be held on the unanimously agreed earlier date of 6 September. 

An uneasy calm returned to the streets in Bolivia only after mediation by the European Union, the United Nations and the Catholic Church led to talks between the socialist leaders and the government. Although there is a resumption of public services, the demand for timely election and an end to the political impasse continues.

Issues at large
First, the issue of competing ideologies. Political volatility in Bolivia has a long history and has seen 190 revolutions and coups. The recent uncertainty left by Evo's departure has unleashed a tussle between three political factions- the pro-US right-wing party, the socialists eyeing a comeback, and the moderates in the opposition. The interim government does not hold an elected mandate. However, it has made efforts at reversing the ideological gains made by Morales' incumbency even as the popularity of the MAS persists in its traditional strongholds. President Anez's appearance at the Bolivian Palace of Government with a Bible in hand has alarmed the left-wing, who saw this as an affront to the secular culture of laicismo. Additionally, a campaign of intimidation and public humiliation unleashed on Evo's aides after the coup was an unambiguous statement on dominance.

Second, the issue of internal fissures between the indigenous and white communities. As the first indigenous President, Evo Morales' tenure ushered in prosperity in rural areas and amongst communities traditionally disenfranchised. The declaration of Bolivia as a 'plurinational' state, to eliminate structural discrimination of the indigenous community ruffled the sensibilities of the white elite urban class. The presidency of Jeanine Anez is being viewed with absolute contempt among these communities. She is perceived as a dictator; her authorization granting full immunity to the police and the military in dealing with the indigenous protestors in November last year is neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Since the right-wing has never managed to gain even four per cent of the national votes in any election, the interim government is viewed as a sell out to 'Yankee imperialism'. 

Third, the issues related to the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced a rethinking of electoral conduct along with altering voting systems in democracies. Despite the health risks, 35 countries have conducted referendums and elections at various national and provincial levels. Six out of eight parties in the Bolivian election favoured a deferment of elections due to the pandemic. Health concerns notwithstanding, rescheduling elections does not guarantee a fair and reasonable outcome. Therefore, the triple delay in elections in Bolivia is perplexing.

In perspective
A sustained opposition-led political campaign for conducting elections will help avoid the bloodshed that succeeded the aftermath of the coup late last year. At the same time, democracies should not hinge on populist personality cults. The internal fissures in Bolivia that extend to the political sphere beg the question of whether elections are the 'only' way to resolve deep-rooted issues. The process of election is not just a mandate to occupy public office but also an endorsement of popular support. Moreover, for an export-oriented country like Bolivia, political stability is- among other factors- also a direct consequence of who controls the extraction and allocation of resources.
Consequently, timely elections are important for legitimate leadership and a healthy democracy.

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