COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 2
Since the very beginning of COVID-19, national governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have had to navigate the uncertainties and insecurities of conducting a successful electoral process in the middle of a pandemic. Some governments have opted to continue elections as they were initially scheduled and others have delayed the process for a particular period of time and then pursued elections. The rapid advance of the virus and the need to maintain strong democratic institutions are at the core of these considerations and changes. As researchers we should also aim to understand what are the underlying trends that were already at play prior to the pandemic, and which have subsequently become exacerbated during the pandemic.
How did we get to this point?
The current state of presidential elections in Bolivia is a representative example of how COVID-19 has exacerbated social and political upheaval which was already taking place in the region.
October 2019 was the last time Bolivia had presidential elections. This electoral process last year was marred with irregularities and what the Organization of American States (OAS) called in its final audit on December 19, 2019, “intentional manipulation” and “serious irregularities”. With the resignation of the vice president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, a damning OAS final report, calls of resignations from his own army chief, General Williams Kaliman, and social unrest and protests throughout the country, former President Evo Morales resigns on November 10, 2019. Morales was initially given political asylum in Mexico. He now resides in Argentina, where he was granted refugee status in December 2019.
At the time of Morales’ resignation, other high level government officers also resigned such as Vice President Álvaro García Linera, Chamber of Deputies President Victor Borda and Senate President Adriana Salvatierra as well as the head of the electoral tribunal, and the police commander. With the support of several countries in the region, most vocally from Mexico, they claim that the series of events were all part of an orchestrated coup.
On November 12, 2019, Jeanine Áñez, a senator for Beni, a department in Bolivia’s northeastern lowlands, assumed the interim presidency of the country in an extraordinary session of Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Despite boycott calls from the opposition parties, the Plurinational Constitutional Court upheld the vote and declared Áñez interim president with a mandate to call for new presidential elections in no less than 90 days. In the next ten days, the Legislative Assembly unanimously annulled the October election results and banned Evo Morales from running as a candidate. Subsequently, the new team appointed to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal set May 3 as the new date for new elections.
And then COVID-19 happened…
On March 21, a day before a full national quarantine was declared in the country, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal suspended elections scheduled for May 3, and also declared a 14-day suspension of electoral campaigns and preparations. The rapid deterioration of the public health crisis forced the tribunal to consider a later date than initially envisioned, before August 2. After consultation with all political parties, elections were confirmed to take place on September 6. Áñez as well as her political party expressed doubt and consternation as to the need to conduct elections in the middle of a pandemic. Others claim that her doubts were evidence of her desire to remain in power.
And then on July 23, the elections were postponed once again. This time the Supreme Electoral Tribunal just issued a statement without consultation with the Legislative Assembly or political parties. Salvador Romero, president of the tribunal, cited the deterioration of the health crises as well as logistical issues during the pandemic as the main reasons for the delay. Calls for protests and blockades throughout the country were immediately taken into action, and they have marred the supply of food and gas in several parts of the country. Given the social unrest, the different parties with support from the United Nations, the European Union and the Catholic Church, have agreed to negotiate a new law in the legislature to set the date of the elections to October 18 among other compromise options and proposals.
Other pieces of the puzzle
One of the most powerful things that COVID-19 has managed to reveal is how intrinsically connected all these issues are: elections, public health, indigenous’ rights, disinformation, etc.
Whether you agree with his political ideology and social policies or not, Evo Morales as the country’s first indigenous president was seen as a milestone in a country where these communities have been historically ostracized. Despite constituting the vast majority of its population, indigenous people have been continuously alienated from powerful political positions and access to influential roles and resources. Whether his 14 years at the head of the country actually improved the situation of indigenous communities is the topic of another report. In the midst of all these political and social concerns, it’s important to notice that COVID-19 continues to severely impact indigenous communities, particularly so in the Amazon basin. The lack of coordination both at the regional and national levels will exacerbate the deterioration of the situation and subsequently influence these communities’ level of participation in any political and electoral process.
Rampant disinformation has also plagued Bolivia from the very beginning of the pandemic. Conspiracy theories on how 5G antennas are responsible for spreading the virus or promoting a toxic disinfectant as a possible cure are among the most widespread disinformation efforts in the country. These problems were the main raison d’etre behind decree no. 4200 issued by the Áñez interim government on March 25 which contained the following article: “individuals who incite non-compliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainty to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health” (Art. 13-2). Critics have also worried that these news laws might curtail freedom of expression and of the press at a time when it is most critically needed.
Considering this panorama, is there a reason to believe that elections in Bolivia are actually going to take place on October 18? We will continue to closely follow this story and its implication for the country and the region.