Bolivia awaits voting results in presidential redo amid COVID-19 pandemic
Leading contender is former economy minister of exiled left-wing president
Bolivians settled in for a tense, and possibly long, vote count as results trickled in from Sunday's high-stakes presidential election meant to put an end to political turmoil following last year's annulled ballot that resulted in leftist President Evo Morales's resignation.
Six hours after polls closed, barely three per cent of all ballot boxes had been counted, officials said. Adding to intrigue, publication of two exit polls were withheld after private pollsters said they didn't trust their own survey results.
Bolivians have long been accustomed to quick preliminary results in presidential elections. But after allegations of fraud and violent protests marred last year's ballot, newly installed electoral authorities have been appealing for patience, reminding voters that they have up to five days to declare a winner.
"These are days that require maturity from each and every one of us," interim President Jeanine Anez said shortly after polls closed following a peaceful, mostly incident-free day of voting.
Bolivia, once one of the most politically volatile countries in Latin America, experienced a rare period of stability under Morales, the country's first Indigenous president who resigned and fled the country late last year after his claimed election win was annulled amid allegations of fraud.
Protests over the vote and later his ouster set off a period of unrest that caused at least 36 deaths. Morales called his ouster a coup, and a non-elected conservative government has ruled ever since.
Sunday's vote was an attempt to reset Bolivia's democracy.
"Bolivia's new executive and legislative leaders will face daunting challenges in a polarized country, ravaged by COVID-19 and hampered by endemically weak institutions," said the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights advocacy organization.
Voting appeared to be peaceful on Sunday, with long lines at some polling places but little of the hustle and bustle of past election days. Voters appeared to be wearing masks and following physical-distancing restrictions.
But it may be days before Bolivians have a good idea who won. While some independent groups will operate selective quick-count surveys, the country's Supreme Electoral Court announced late Saturday that it had decided unanimously against reporting running preliminary vote totals as ballots are counted.
It said it wanted to avoid the uncertainty that fed unrest when there was a long halt in reporting preliminary results during last year's election.
Council President Salvador Romero promised a safe and transparent official count, which could take five days.
"The people have an admirable civic spirit and that's valuable in a country that has had to repeat its electoral process," said Francisco Guerrero, a member of the observer team sent by the Organization of American States.
Morales, who was barred from running, issued a statement from his refuge in Argentina urging his backers not to be provoked into violence, urging them to patiently wait for the results.
"The great lesson we should never forget is that violence only generates violence, and with that, we all lose," he said.
To win in the first round, a candidate needs more than 50 per cent of the vote, or 40 per cent with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the second-place candidate. A runoff vote, if necessary, would be held Nov. 28.
Bolivia's entire 136-member Legislative Assembly will also be voted in.
Vote postponed twice over COVID-19
The election was postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. On a per-capita basis, few countries have been hit harder than impoverished, landlocked Bolivia: Nearly 8,400 of its 11.6 million people have died of COVID-19.
The election will occur with physical distancing required between masked voters — at least officially, if not in practice.
The leading contenders are former economy minister Luis Arce, who led an extended boom under Morales, and former president Carlos Mesa. a centrist historian and journalist who was second to Morales in the disputed returns released after last year's vote. Trailing in all the polls has been Luis Fernando Camacho, a conservative businessman who helped lead last year's uprising, as well as a Korean-born evangelist.
Overshadowing the vote is the absence of Morales, who led Bolivia from 2006 until 2019 and was a key figure in the bloc of leftist leaders who held power across much of South America. Morales, now exiled in Argentina, was barred from running for the presidency or even the Senate by electoral authorities following his ouster.
He chose Arce as his stand-in for the Movement Toward Socialism party, and a win by the party would be seen as a victory for Latin America's left.
A boyhood llama herder who became prominent leading a coca growers' union, Morales had been immensely popular while overseeing an export-led economic surge that reduced poverty during most of his term. But support was eroding due to his reluctance to leave power, increasing authoritarian impulses and a series of corruption scandals.
He shrugged aside a public vote that had set term limits and competed in the October 2019 presidential vote, which he claimed to have narrowly won outright. But a lengthy pause in reporting results fed suspicions of fraud, and nationwide protests broke out.
When police and military leaders suggested he leave, Morales resigned and fled the country. Anez proclaimed herself president and was accepted by the courts. Her administration, despite lacking a majority in congress, set about trying to prosecute Morales and key aides while undoing his policies, helping prompt more unrest and polarization.
She dropped out as a candidate for Sunday's presidential election while trailing badly in polls.
Most polls have shown Arce with a lead, though likely not enough to avoid a runoff.
There is a strong chance the next president will struggle with a divided congress — and perhaps worse, an opposition that refuses to recognize defeat.