Over the past two weeks, Bolivian demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest repeated delays to the rerun of last October’s election in which the former socialist president, Evo Morales, was ousted from his 14-year-long presidential incumbency. Citing sanitary measures due to COVID-19, the interim government has postponed the election for a third time to October 18 and has mobilized the military in response to the demonstrators’ actions, denouncing them as an attack on the struggling health sector.
In the largest protests seen since the aftermath of last year’s contentious election in which the BBC reported 32 killed and hundreds injured, demonstrators have dynamited Andean passes, created roadblocks and held marches. The highway blockades have been organized primarily by labour unions and rural indigenous groups allied to the socialist party of Morales, MAS. However, while all are protesting against the election delays, there are also divisions within the opposition, says Ximena Velasco-Guachalla, a political scientist at the University of Essex.
In response, the interim government has mobilized the military, claiming that as a result of the blockades, ambulances and oxygen supply trucks have not been able to reach hospitals and 31 coronavirus patients have died. Protesters, however, reject this accusation, claiming that they are dismantling roadblocks to allow medical vehicles through. Critics insist that the government is trying to scapegoat the protesters for their own mishandling of the health crisis and taking advantage of the pandemic itself to delay the election and maintain undemocratic power.
A protestor told NPR, “we have a government that is illegitimate because we haven’t elected it…many of us know the risk [voting] entails because of the pandemic…but we want to hold elections … we can’t stand it anymore.” Joseph Borrell, EU High Representative, has urged “political dialogue” to ensure peace is maintained, while Carwil Bjork-James, a scholar of Bolivian protest movements at Vanderbilt University, said an earlier date for the elections or a binding commitment to 18 October could calm tensions.
Despite the possible political motivation for the delay, the need for pandemic prevention is a legitimate concern. According to Europa Press, as of 11 August, Bolivia has 91,635 reported infections and at least 3,712 deaths. The country’s already fragile health care system is struggling to cope, with the police being drafted in to collect the dead from homes and streets. A mass gathering like an election could pose a very real and serious health risk to the population.
To some, this is a risk worth taking to remove the current government from power. Since November 2019, Bolivia has been led by Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing senator who received just 4% of the vote in October’s election. Appointed by a group that did not consist of a single, publicly elected Bolivian official, critics claim that her appointment lacked requisite legislative quorum. Furthermore, after initially promising new elections within 90 days and declaring that she herself would not run for the presidency, she has since changed her stance on both matters, prompting critics to say that Áñez and her ministers are seeking to retain power indefinitely.
More worrying still, according to the International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights, Bolivia has seen “a surge of human rights violations” since the interim government took office, which includes deadly “state-sponsored violence, restrictions on free speech, and arbitrary detentions.” These actions have led to widespread criticism, even from anti-Morales politicians.
Now Bolivian dissidents face a difficult decision: to prioritize their right to a swift democratic election or to withhold these demands to protect a vulnerable population facing a pandemic, at the risk of another undemocratic, prolonged presidency. While the demonstrations may be justified, Bolivia’s current situation is evidence that revolts, even when motivated by righteous interests, can go badly wrong and that the removal of the incumbent leaves a power vacuum that other parties can exploit. For the moment, what is required is unified leadership from the opposition, political dialogue and a fixed election date.