Following months of uncertainty, Bolivian authorities came close to defining an election date. In early June, the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which oversaw negotiations with the leading candidates and parties, settled on September 6. The Plurinational Legislative Assembly confirmed the decision. While interim President Jeanine Áñez initially agreed to ratify the date, she backtracked on her promise. Áñez, who has overseen the government’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, asked for an epidemiological study to determine the safest date for voters to head to the polls.
The unilateral decision raised criticism from across the political spectrum. But after being accused of using the pandemic as an excuse to extend her residency in the Palacio Quemado, Áñez signed off on the September 6 election date on Sunday June 21.
Elections: A way out of the crisis?
The most recent controversy surrounding the election comes at a crucial moment for the Andean country of eleven million. In October 2019, Bolivians held general elections that quickly escalated to a full-blown crisis. Despite losing a 2016 referendum that would enable his presidential re-election, a controversial TSE ruling allowed former President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term. Evo’s vote share fell to 47 percent in the election, marking his worst performance since first winning the presidency in 2005. Nevertheless, the ten-percentage point lead over his closest contender, Carlos Mesa (36.5 percent), let Evo avoid a second-round vote by a razor-sharp edge.
A series of irregularities surrounding the election—including a 24-hour suspension of the vote-counting process—challenged the assumption of a Movement for Socialism (MAS) victory. The opposition candidates cried foul play, which was later confirmed by an Organization of American States’ (OAS) audit of the election. The accusations of vote fraud plus discontent over Morales re-election bid led to protests that rapidly turned violent. Even though Morales ordered a recount and agreed to compete in a second-round vote, he stepped down after the Armed Forces suggested he resign on live television. To date, two independent studies found that the OAS audit relied on incorrect data and inappropriate statistical techniques—although doubts remain about the extent to which the elections were free and fair.
In the wake of Morales’ departure, key MAS officials resigned from their posts, including Adriana Salvatierra, the president of the Senate. As a result, Jeanine Áñez, a mostly unknown politician from the Beni Department serving as the Senate’s second vice-president, was sworn as interim president. The conservative bible-carrying Áñez promised to guarantee clean elections and then step down, but in a surprise move, she announced her intention to include herself on the ballot in late January—drawing sharp criticism. The decision cast doubt on Áñez’s impartiality and undermined Bolivia’s stability.
Authorities initially scheduled the election for May 3, 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced its postponement. The MAS—which was leading in the polls—demanded elections as soon as possible. By contrast, Áñez, leading efforts to manage the outbreak and hoping to capitalize on her government’s relatively effective response, sought more time. A tug of war between MAS legislators and Áñez ensued. After setting an initial August election date, cooler heads prevailed and all parties agreed on September 6. While Áñez’s decision to further delay the election risked undoing months of negotiations, her decision to approve the September date prevented another crisis.
Bolivia’s COVID-19 response: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Before the pandemic, eight candidates registered for the election. Of them, three had real chances of winning: Luis Arce, the MAS candidate and Evo’s long-time minister of economy and public finance; Carlos Mesa, a former president (2003-2005) and the runner-up in the 2019 contest; and the interim president, Jeanine Áñez. At the time, pollsters predicted a second-round vote between Arce and Mesa—with Áñez behind Mesa by approximately two points. While Mesa holds the upper hand due to the momentum gained from last year’s election, Áñez’s candidacy might have better chances now because of her government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By regional standards, Bolivia responded quickly and relatively effectively to COVID-19, imposing a strict nation-wide quarantine in late March after detecting just two dozen cases. Áñez’s administration also moved to ease the economic impact of the lockdown, distributing cash payments to low-income families. The swift response triggered a surprising political shift. Áñez, who started the year with sinking approval ratings, suddenly received a significant boost. In May, her approval reached 69 percent, making it hard to believe that Bolivians had taken to the streets in the tens of thousands to oppose her presidency just six months before.
However, there are signs the COVID-19 polling bump may be quick to wear off in Bolivia—as elsewhere. The country’s early lockdown likely kept the country from reaching the disastrous infection rates of Brazil, Chile, Mexico, or Peru, but the pandemic response has not been without controversy. First, in May, Bolivia’s health minister, Marcelo Navajas, was arrested on corruption charges for allegedly buying dozens of ventilators at a 400 percent markup. The arrest underlines just one of over a dozen corruption scandals under Áñez’s administration. Second, Áñez’s presidency may be using the cover of the pandemic to target critics. A minister in Áñez’s cabinet stated in mid-April that security officials had already arrested several dozen people for waging a “virtual war” against the government for their criticisms of its COVID-19 response. Then, in May, the government issued a vague decree threatening further arrest for spreading “misinformation” about its COVID-19 response.
But even the strict lockdown measures have not been enough to “flatten the curve.” As Bolivia gradually began lifting quarantine, cases have skyrocketed in the eastern departments of Beni and Santa Cruz, economic powerhouses. Both have traditionally been bastions of opposition to the MAS. If the spread continues unchecked, Áñez’s momentum could vanish into thin air, leaving Arce and the MAS well-positioned to return to power.
Áñez is not the only South American president to benefit from relatively effective management of the COVID-19 crisis. Argentina has also unified behind its president, Alberto Fernández. Fernandez, who took office last fall after winning a close election, started the year with the support of only half the country, an economy already in recession, and a daunting task ahead: restructuring the country’s massive debt. However, his administration’s COVID-19 response—arguably one of the most comprehensive in the region—put polarization on hold. In March, Argentina imposed a strict national lockdown, later joined by an extreme set of travel restrictions banning international flights until the fall. Fernández’s government backed these measures with a general social assistance package for low-income and informal sector workers. By mid-April, Fernández’s approval rating, which had stagnated in the mid-30s in March, jumped to over 70 percent— virtually unprecedented in ideologically-divided Argentina.
Compared to Bolivia, there have been few indications of large-scale graft or any power grab. Yet week-by-week polls show Fernández’s record-high approval ratings are declining. Poverty and inflation, already respectively at 40 and 50 percent, are again on the rise. On top of that, lockdown measures—now extended by several weeks—may have stalled the spread of COVID-19, but the rate at which new cases are spreading has continued to accelerate.
By moving faster and more comprehensively than many of their neighbors, Bolivia and Argentina likely saved thousands of lives. But it is doubtful that incumbents will reap the political benefits for long. While COVID-19 is already upending everything from Latin America’s economy to the behavior of organized criminal groups, it is more likely to deepen ideological divides than to dissolve them. This process is already underway in Brazil and Ecuador, where the debate over COVID-19 response is occurring along partisan lines. Bolivia’s presidential elections, whenever ratified, may be the first test of whether the trend is here to stay.
Will Freeman is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Princeton University. You can follow him on Twitter @WillGFreeman
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello