How Bolivia overcame a crisis and smoothly voted
A presidential race that many feared would end in chaos or bloodshed ended quietly, leading Bolivians to prepare for a year of instability and challenges to democracy.
LA PAZ, Bolivia — As Election Day came, candidates were concerned about bribery. Voters around Bolivia doubted democratic procedure solidity. And many feared the result — any result — would spark outrage and aggression from the other hand.
Yet in the days after the referendum, something unusual occurred.
The election went smoothly, and its results were easily and universally accepted — an achievement many applaud in a world that has weathered years of challenges to its democracy.
"Freedom won in Bolivia," said Fernanda Wanderley, Universidad Católica Boliviana socioeconomic institute director.
Sunday's exit polls saw one candidate, Luis Arce, obviously leading. Next day, his biggest rival, Carlos Mesa, conceded. On Friday, Bolivia 's electoral tribunal announced that Mr. Arce will indeed be Bolivia's next president, meeting the wishes of exit polls and voters.
Ultimately, Mr. Arce won 55 percent of the vote, and Mr. Mesa got just under 29 percent, a far bigger victory than Mr. Arce 's advisors got expected.
Mr. Arce is the former president 's preferred nominee, Evo Morales, a popular Bolivian politician. Mr. Morales is a radical who changed the world, bringing hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, and prioritizing indigenous and agricultural peoples in a nation dominated by a white elite for decades.
The figures show strong voter interest in continuing the political project of Mr. Morales and his faction, Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS.
But voters and observers also say the election represents a hopeful moment for a political structure that slipped under Mr. Morales, who bypassed the laws in the constitution of his country to run for a third and then fourth term, and was blamed for persecuting rivals, intimidating journalists, and packing the judiciary in his favour.
Last year's bid to run for a fourth term ended in charges of electoral fraud, and requests from street critics and demonstrators that he back down. Once police and armed forces supported the call for his resignation, he fled the government, calling a coup for his ouster. Sunday's voting was last year's do-over.
The president who served in an interim capacity during the past year, Mr. Morales's adversary Jeanine Añez, also persecuted her political rivals and stifled opposition, angering many Bolivians by postponing the new election.
Her hard-line anti-MAS propaganda, which made no difference between party leaders and ordinary people, put off many Bolivians, said Bolivian journalist Raúl Peñaranda.
In interviews, many Bolivians attributed relative calm since the election and Mr. Arce 's strong turnout to a desire for peace.
In less than 200 years, it has seen 190 revolutions and coups. Last year saw violent demonstrations, a presidential ouster, a health crisis that killed thousands, a financial crisis that left millions starving, and a tumultuous election that riveted the country.
Mr. Morales, who had been in power for 14 years, was Bolivia 's longest-served president and ruled over the country at a time when oil boom sent capital into the country.
Mr. Arce has long been his Minister of Economics and is also associated with the growth and relative political stability. He also vowed to keep five years in office.
All this seems to have persuaded over half the country to give him a chance.
"I think last year's crisis has weakened Bolivian democracy a lot, part of an accumulative process," Wanderley said. "But eventually, Bolivia found a way to solve this crisis and was able to hold a clean, legitimate election in which the popular vote determined the winner."
After Mr. Morales' ouster, Bolivia has made a deliberate attempt to resolve the electoral system 's skepticism.
It overhauled the electoral tribunal, packed with Morales loyalists. It has initiated a voter education drive and cleaned up the electoral rolls, said Naledi Lester, an election analyst working in La Paz to test the Carter Center vote, a non-profit that has been watching elections since 1989.
Her colleague José Antonio de Gabriel, who also works in La Paz, said the tribunal had an organized ballot, "acting with impartiality and freedom and preserving political diversity."
Mr. Morales was pushed out last year after his opponents accused his administration of attempting to manipulate the referendum.
The Association of American States, which last year championed Bolivia 's largest democratic observer mission, harshly criticized the 2019 process, concluding that election officials participated in "intentional coercion" and "significant anomalies" that rendered it difficult to check the outcome.
They contained secret data servers, altered voting receipts, and forged signatures, the O.A.S. said.
Several research and policy analyst reviews have since questioned the organization's election statistical study.
Yet O.A.S. report influenced the election's local and global narrative. It was used by supporters of Mr. Morales to say that multinational powers conspire against them, and by opponents of Mr. Morales to say that MAS cheated the referendum.
For the past year, these opposing opinions sent people to the streets, often resulting in violent clashes.
O.A.S. sent 40 people this year to watch the referendum. The organization released a report Wednesday calling it "exemplary" and "without dishonest behavior."
The comparatively smooth nature of the referendum could also influence who won.
Before Sunday's referendum, Mr. Arce's faction was a lead voice sowing uncertainty in the electoral tribunal's impartiality. His fans, in several interviews, said they wouldn't believe the vote if he didn't emerge as the winner.
"Arce will win, so they'll continue to trick him out of it," said Graciela Fernández, 41, a product vendor, just days before the voting. "Then there'll be a war."
In an interview , Mr. Mesa said he would "absolutely, categorically" accept the outcome if he lost. And so it did.
Mr. Arce 's electoral tribunal opposition dropped mostly after winning.
"If the findings were different," Wanderley said, "we might have had significant issues."