Canada not ready to condemn Bolivia's dubious election

Canada has decided not to join the EU, the U.S. and some of its most important partners in the Lima Group in refusing to recognize the official result of Bolivia's presidential elections, in which incumbent Evo Morales claimed to have been re-elected.

U.S., EU won’t recognize Morales as president, but Canada waiting on election audit

PM Justin Trudeau laughs with Bolivia's President Evo Morales during the group photo at Americas Summit in Lima, Peru, April 14, 2018. The Trudeau government has had a much better relationship with Bolivia's socialist government than with that of Venezuela, and has not condemned Morales for claiming electoral victory Friday. (The Associated Press)

Canada has decided not to join the European Union, the United States and some of its most important partners in the Lima Group in refusing to recognize the official result of Bolivia's presidential elections, in which incumbent Evo Morales claimed to have been re-elected to a fourth consecutive term.

In contrast to the forward role it has taken against the Maduro government in Venezuela, the Trudeau government has decided to take a more cautious approach in Bolivia, awaiting the results of an audit of the vote by an 90-member observer mission of the Organization of American States, with the backing of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The European Union, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and the United States have all questioned the legitimacy of the result and called for a second round of voting.

Yesterday at the OAS, the U.S. introduced a motion calling on Bolivia "to acknowledge that the electoral process as implemented in Bolivia does not fully comply with international standards."

The main issues are illegal use of state resources to promote the Morales campaign, and packing the electoral tribunal with partisan supporters.

On the other side of the ledger, the socialist government of Venezuela, which is a close ally of Bolivia's Morales and is also considered illegitimate by Canada, congratulated him on his win, as did Mexico's leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Cuba also sent a message of support.

Canada will await audit

Adam Austen, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, told CBC News that Canada may yet join its voice to the demands that there be a second round of voting.

"We are concerned by the fact that, according to the OAS Electoral Observation Mission's preliminary report, the electoral process as implemented does not fully comply with international standards."

Austen said Canada would await the results of a vote audit that the Bolivian government has agreed to co-operate with. "The Bolivian authorities must allow the OAS the ability to undertake this analysis freely and credibly."

"We echo the call from others around the world that the outcome of the election must reflect the genuine democratic will of the Bolivian people. If the OAS analysis deems it to be necessary, we will support the call for a second round of elections."

Speaking on background, a Canadian official said Canada did not expect results this weekend, but also did not expect to wait more than a few days.

Protests turn violent

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 were already suspicious that fraud was underway.

Seven regional elections offices were set on fire and destroyed by protesters in different parts of the country, as leader of the opposition Citizens' Community party Carlos Mesa 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."

An anti-government protester holds a poster with a caricature depicting Bolivia's President Evo Morales and a message that reads in Spanish: 'Get out dictator,' during a march demanding a second round presidential election, in La Paz, Bolivia, Friday. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

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 Evo Morales. 

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, they all set fires to clear their new land and the result was out-of-control wildfires.

An 'unexplained' pause in counting votes

Bolivia's constitution provides for a second or run-off round of voting where 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 winner and no second round is needed.

Bolivians voted last Sunday 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. Carlos Mesa would probably be able to count on the support of most voters of the third-place candidate, and therefore stood a good chance of emerging as the ultimate winner. 

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.

Protesters, who allege Morales is guilty of electoral fraud, run amid tear gas fired by police during a demonstration outside the top electoral court during the wait for final results from last weekend's election. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

GAC's Austen told CBC News: "We are also concerned by the 24-hour interruption of the disclosure of the election results, thus far unexplained."

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

Who is Evo Morales?

Evo Morales is a member of Bolivia's Aymara Indigenous people who was raised in a poor farming family. He 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.

In the '90s 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 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."

Morales waves after voting at a polling station in the Chapare region of Bolivia, October 20. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

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

Although Morales identified closely with the socialist "Bolivarian" axis of governments in Latin America, he has generally escaped the opprobrium directed at those governments, because he has avoided major rights abuses, elections have continued to be held, his economic management has been competent and he is not perceived as personally corrupt.

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.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.