Last time we looked at Bolivia, after the departure of former president Evo Morales back in November, I said that the important thing was to “concentrate on holding the interim government to account, and try to make sure it keeps its promise of early and free elections.”
Morales had come to grief, you may remember, by first defying term limits and then being declared the first-round winner of a somewhat suspicious election by a very narrow margin. Popular protests and pressure from the military procured his resignation, and an interim government – controlled by his political enemies – took office pending fresh elections.
But then came Covid-19, and the elections, scheduled for 3 May, were postponed (with bipartisan agreement) for four months. Now the 5 September date is also in doubt, after the bodies of hundreds of apparent coronavirus victims have been recovered in the last few days. Health advisers have suggested that a further postponement is required.
Bolivia, with less than half of Australia’s population, has been recording more than a thousand new cases per day and the official death toll has exceeded 2,000. While that’s by no means the worst in South America, it’s still pretty bad.
As I’ve said before, I think that as a general rule a short postponement is preferable to trying to hold an election in the midst of a health crisis. But that requires a degree of mutual trust that may not be available in Bolivia. The election was already problematic to some extent, because interim president Jeanine Áñez, who had originally promised to only serve in a temporary capacity, has herself become a candidate. (She has also now tested positive for Covid-19.)
Nonetheless, despite the irregular nature of last November’s events, things had seemed to be on track for a fair election. Morales’s party, the Movement for Socialism, has nominated former finance minister Luis Arce as its presidential candidate, and polls mostly show him as the front-runner ahead of centrist Carlos Mesa, Morales’s opponent from last year. Áñez is running a close third.
After Morales’s departure, many questioned whether his party would be allowed to return to power, or even to compete with a semblance of fairness. (Recall the events of 2013 in Egypt for an example of how badly this sort of thing can turn out.) Each side certainly has grounds for distrusting the other – but in the circumstances, what other choice do they have?
The coronavirus has only added to the woes of what has already been a rough couple of years in Latin America, where the two regional powers, Brazil and Mexico, have been illustrating the respective dangers of right-wing and left-wing authoritarian populism. Bolivia is small fry by comparison, but an orderly and democratic election there would still be a most welcome sign.