Democracy on trial in Bolivia

Concerns overnight about counting in the first round of Bolivia’s presidential election, held on Sunday (yesterday morning Australian time). For a long period reporting of results was stalled with 83.8% counted, arousing suspicions of collusion between the electoral commission and the government of president Evo Morales.

The election was already controversial. Morales has been in office since 2006, and in 2016 held a referendum to remove the term limit that made him ineligible to run again this year. Morales had been a popular president, winning re-election in 2014 with 61.4% of the vote, but Bolivians decided he had had long enough and narrowly voted against the change.

Morales at first conceded defeat, but then took the issue to the supreme court, which obligingly ruled that term limits were unconstitutional. Shades of the Australian high court, which in 2006 ruled that the people’s refusal to give the federal government power over industrial relations at a referendum was irrelevant, and upheld the power anyway.

So Morales is on the ballot again. On the partial results as reported yesterday, he led with 45.3% of the vote, as against 38.2% for his main challenger, former president Carlos Mesa. Seven candidates shared the remainder, the only two of importance being Christian Democrat Chi Hyun Chung on 8.8% and Social Democrat Oscar Ortiz Antelo on 4.4%.

That looked well short of the number needed to avoid a runoff. Not as far as you might think, however, since as an alternative to winning a simple majority, it’s possible to win on the first round with anything over 40%, provided there’s a margin of more than ten points between first and second. So if late counting favored Morales heavily – as it might, since his support is strongest in rural areas – he was still a chance of avoiding a runoff.

And sure enough, this morning when results started coming in again, Morales was doing much better. Now with 95.4% counted, he’s leading by 9.3%: 46.4% to Mesa’s 37.1%. By my calculation, he’s won about 54% of the recently reported votes. If he keeps going that way, he might just make the 10% lead.

Most of the time, the 40% + 10% margin provision is a sensible one; it saves the trouble and expense of holding a second round when the result is a foregone conclusion. But occasionally there’s an election where it could produce the wrong result, and this is a classic example.

Chung and Oritz are both from the right (the Social Democrats, despite their name, are a right-wing party), and both would be expected to back Mesa in a runoff against the leftist Morales. Even assuming some leakage, Mesa would have an excellent chance of overtaking the incumbent.

If he’s deprived of that chance, on top of the suspicious hiatus in counting and the trashing of the 2016 referendum result, it will be a very bad look for Bolivian democracy.


4 thoughts on “Democracy on trial in Bolivia

  1. An interesting exercise is to see how many contests here would have turned out differently under a 40 plus 10 rule. Here’s a few I’ve found:

    Maiwar 2017 – Lib 41.9 ALP 27.8 Grn 27.5
    Melbourne Ports 2016 – Lib 41.9 ALP 27.0
    Prahran 2014 – Lib 44.8 ALP 25.9 Grn 24.8
    Richmond 2004 – Nat 45.8 ALP 35.6

    I can’t find an example under OPV, but Lismore 2019 (Nat 39.7 ALP 25.6) shows it’s certainly possible.


    1. Thanks David – I hadn’t thought of doing that! Very interesting. It does happen, but it’s unusual.
      Morales has now, not surprisingly, been proclaimed the winner in a very dodgy count. I’ll do an update on Monday.


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