Canada calls for new vote after disputed Bolivian election

After holding off for five days, Canada has joined with the U.S., EU and several South American governments in calling for Bolivia to hold a second-round runoff vote pitting President Evo Morales directly against opposition leader Carlos Mesa. This follows an OAS audit of the vote that found evidence of fraud.

Trudeau government joins allies in putting Evo Morales on notice it will not recognize new government

Anti-government protesters burn a picture President Evo Morales during a march demanding a second round presidential election, in La Paz, Bolivia, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

Canada is calling on the government of Bolivia to hold a runoff in its disputed presidential election, warning that it will withhold recognition of any government that emerges without a second round of voting.

"It is not possible to accept the outcome under these circumstances," says a statement issued today by Global Affairs Canada. "We join our international partners in calling for a second round of elections to restore credibility in the electoral process."

Incumbent Evo Morales claims to have won the election in the first round. The official results of the Oct. 20 elections appeared to give Morales the majority he needed to avoid a runoff vote, but second-place finisher Carlos Mesa claims the count was manipulated and has refused to accept it.

A GAC official told CBC News there was no plan to draw down Canada's diplomatic presence in the country. Canada's embassy in Caracas also remained open after Canada withdrew recognition from the Venezuelan government, although it was eventually forced to close.

PM Justin Trudeau laughs with Bolivia's President Evo Morales during the group photo at Americas Summit in Lima, Peru, April 14, 2018. (The Associated Press)

The Canadian call for a run-off vote comes after five days of scrutiny and auditing of ballots by a 90-person team of observers from the Organization of American States. The Bolivian government agreed to cooperate with the audit after the results were questioned by the governments of several South American countries and the United States, and by Bolivia's main foreign donor, the European Union.

Even as the audit proceeded, the government continued to insist the election had been free and fair and that Morales had won a fourth term.

Morales has won support for his claims from leftist leaders in the region, including Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Argentina's president-elect Alberto Fernandez, Mexico's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Cuba's Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Canada's cautious stance

In contrast to Canada's active role in the effort to remove the socialist Maduro government of Venezuela, which it considers illegitimate due to electoral fraud and other constitutional violations, the Trudeau government took a more cautious approach to events in Bolivia.

While the Europeans and Americans were calling for a second round of voting at the end of last week, Canada chose to await the results of the OAS audit before taking a position.

Though the Morales government is very much part of a Venezuelan- and Cuban-led collection of socialist governments in Latin America, Evo Morales personally has not drawn the same antipathy and controversy as his counterpart Nicolas Maduro. He is not generally seen as personally corrupt, and though Bolivia's opposition warns of an increasing turn to authoritarianism, his government can boast of solid economic growth and doesn't have Venezuela's record of serious rights abuses.

Morales is also something of a progressive icon and a symbol of Indigenous self-government, having come from humble origins as the child of a farming family belonging to Bolivia's Aymara people.

An 'unexplained' pause in counting votes

Today's statement by Global Affairs Canada drew attention to events during the vote count that fired up protests in Bolivia and provoked suspicion around the world, citing "the unexplained 24 hour interruption in the disclosure of the election results."

That interruption led many in the country to believe that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, staffed by Morales loyalists, was rigging the count to avoid a second round of voting Morales could not be sure of winning.

Bolivia's constitution provides for a second or run-off round of voting which sees the two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round face off directly against each other.

However, if one candidate receives more than 50 per cent in the first round, or gets over 40 per cent and also enjoys an advantage of at least 10 points over his or her nearest rival, the candidate is declared the winner and no second round is needed.

Protesters run amid tear gas fired by police during a demonstration against the reelection of President Evo Morales outside the top electoral court during the wait for final results from last weekend's presidential election in La Paz, Bolivia, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

Bolivians voted on Sunday, October 20, and during the week the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Bolivia began to release results from different parts of the country. Already by Monday, the observer mission of the Organization of American States was questioning irregularities in the vote count.

By Tuesday evening, the tribunal was reporting that it had counted 84 per cent of the votes cast. Evo Morales was in the lead, but the gap was not wide enough to avoid a second round. In a second round vote, Carlos Mesa would probably be able to count on the support of most supporters of the third-place candidate, putting him in a good position to win.

But that evening, the electoral tribunal inexplicably went dark for 23 hours. When it began releasing results again, it claimed to have counted 99.99 per cent of the votes, giving 47.07 per cent to Morales and only 36.51 per cent to Mesa.

That gap of 10.56 points meant the election was over and there would be no second round.

Violent protests, claims of a coup

As the new results were announced, protests across the country grew more violent. Morales announced a state of emergency, declaring that he was the target of a coup backed by foreign actors.

On Thursday, Morales personally went on television to announce that his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party won the vote in the first round and no second round would be held. That announcement escalated a wave of protests by opposition supporters who already suspected that fraud was underway.

Seven regional elections offices were set on fire and destroyed by protesters in different parts of the country as Mesa, the leader of the opposition Citizens' Community party, called on his supporters to take to the streets. Mesa warned that if the result is allowed to stand, Bolivia "will go from authoritarianism to dictatorship."

Mesa is a 66-year-old former professor of history and a political centrist whose campaign targeted what he called corruption and a cult of personality under Morales. The opposition accuses Morales of packing the courts with loyalists and using the law to pursue political opponents and critical media.

His party also blamed Morales's agricultural policies for devastating wildfires that destroyed more than four million hectares of forest and savannah this year. After a land grant scheme that gave land to peasants, many set fires to clear their new land and the result was chaos and destruction of natural habitat.

Who is Evo Morales? 

Evo Morales rose to prominence in the 1980s through his activism in the cocalero movement, which sought to defend the right of Bolivians to cultivate coca leaf at a time when the government was under strong U.S. pressure to eradicate the crops.

Bolivia's President and candidate Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party waves after voting in the presidential election at a polling station in a school in Villa 14 de Septiembre, in the Chapare region, on October 20. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

In the 1990s he founded the MAS party, opposing neoliberal economics and the privatization of Bolivia's natural gas resources, and calling for a wider distribution of Bolivia's wealth.

In 2005, Morales was elected president with an absolute majority. 

Morales used Bolivia's natural gas revenues to reduce poverty and increase literacy. He declared the country "refounded" and disavowed the symbols of its Spanish colonial past, requiring public servants to learn one of Bolivia's Indigenous languages.

Though he remained popular with many among Bolivia's Indigenous peoples, Morales soon became a more polarizing figure for the rest of the country as he drew his country closer to Cuba and Venezuela, and announced that he planned to transform Bolivia into a society governed by his ideology of "communitarian socialism."

The civil service became politicized and its members were dragooned into demonstrations in support for Morales. There is also a suspicion of corruption in the awarding of state contracts, which went to a small group of prominent companies.

In recent years, Morales's popularity among his Indigenous base has also suffered, as some groups have accused him of backing hydroelectric or oil-and-gas projects at their expense.

Bolivia's four eastern provinces, which are less Indigenous than the Andean West, have always been a stronghold of the opposition and remain so today. Over time, Morales became less popular with many younger and more urban Bolivians.

In 2016, he lost a referendum on whether he should be allowed to run for a fourth term. But the results were overturned by a Supreme Court of judges appointed by the Morales government, and Morales proceeded to run in his fourth presidential campaign.

Regional powerhouse flips 

Though Morales's government was initially keen to be seen to be cooperating with auditors, and anxious to see the election result recognized by the international community, a power shift in one of Bolivia's most important neighbours has given the embattled leader some last-minute support.

Argentina on Sunday elected a Peronist government that is also very much part of the continent's leftist axis, replacing the centre-right administration of President Mauricio Macri.

On Thursday, Argentina had joined with the other continental heavyweights, Brazil and Colombia, to reject the Bolivian result and demand a second round of voting.

Yesterday, Argentina's president-elect, Alberto Fernandez, signalled that his country would switch course, tweeting congratulations to Morales on his "electoral triumph."