Before I get any further into this post I want to take a moment to make two things very clear. First of all, this is not some sort of “leftist conspiracy theory”. My commentary is based on research by John Curiel and Jack R. Williams, two researchers with MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. Even corporate media like “The Washington Post” reported on their findings (read the article for yourself here).
Secondly, this is not about Evo Morales as a politician. I do not know enough about Bolivian politics to judge his policies in any sort of way. The focus here is on the respect for the democratic decision making of a sovereign country. Despite our tendency to see everything as purely black and white, it is in fact possible to hold a nuanced view (I know, shocking right?). With that being said, let’s not waste anymore time with disclaimers and get straight to the point.
Outraged pundits and their blind rage
“The media has largely reported the allegations of fraud [in the Bolivian election in October of 2019] as fact. And many commentators have justified the coup as a response to electoral fraud by MAS-IPSP [Evo Morales’ party]. However, as specialists in election integrity, we find that the statistical evidence does not support the claim of fraud in Bolivia’s October election.”
– John Curiel and Jack R. Williams in “The Washington Post”
So, here we are again. Unless you are so post-truth that you don’t think the analysis of two MIT researchers is credible, then it very much looks like yet another democratically elected leader in South America was pushed out of office and replaced with an unelected right-wing government. I wouldn’t say that I am surprised by this but at the same time I do find myself baffled at how blatantly repetitive these coups appear to be.
I remember the columns and op-eds of the political pundits on TV and in the newspapers at the time all too well. While the internet has certainly forced us to react faster and faster to world events, it still seemed like a lot of the commentators were very eager to jump on the story of alleged election fraud in Bolivia at the time. Some of them were possibly still frustrated that Nicolás Maduro still holds strong in Venezuela (the story of which is also much more complicated than the media makes it out to be, as you can read for yourself in this UN report by former UN independent expert Alfred de Zayas) and thought they had a new opportunity to expose yet another “socialist dictator”. It was the opposition who first opposed Morales’ victory claim after the election and accused him and his party of fraud. A very serious accusation which should not be taken lightly, no question about that. The Organization of American States (OAS) then published a report on 10 November in which it noted election irregularities which “[lead] the technical audit team to question the integrity of the results of the election on October 20”. It is interesting how some reports like the one by Alfred de Zayas I mentioned earlier are practically ignored while others like this one by the OAS spread like wildfire and go completely unquestioned.
However, even back then it was more than legitimate to raise some questions. Following the OAS report, the police joined the protests against Morales and an unelected, de facto government was installed by the military. According to a European Union monitoring report, some 40 former electoral officials were arrested and 35 people died in the subsequent chaos. Additionally, the presidential candidate for the MAS-IPSP, Luis Arce, appeared to be a victim of lawfare*, as he found himself summoned to testify for undisclosed crimes. The only basis for the claims of electoral fraud was the report by the OAS and whatever followed was simply accepted as necessary “collateral damage”.
The assumptions of the OAS report
Since this report was so significant, it is legitimate to ask on what grounds they came to this conclusion. The two MIT researchers explain it very clearly in the article but just in case you didn’t read it, I’ll recap the most important parts here.
First of all, to win a presidential election in Bolivia you need to either earn an outright electoral majority or 40 per cent of the votes with a lead of at least 10 per cent. Should this not be the case a runoff election will take place. What happened during the 2019 elections was that the preliminary count halted with 84 per cent of the vote counted. At that point Morales had a 7.87 point lead. When counting resumed, Morales’ margin was above the 10-point-threshold. It was this halt that seemed to be a major point of concern for the OAS even though it was consistent with an earlier promise by election officials to count at least 80 per cent of the preliminary vote on election night. The deviations in data reported before and after the cutoff was essentially what the OAS claimed would indicate potential evidence of fraud. In the Washington Post article Curiel and Williams describe the OAS’ method as such:
“The OAS report is in part based on forensic evidence that OAS analysts say points to irregularities, which includes allegations of forged signatures and alteration of tally sheets, a deficient chain of custody, and a halt in the preliminary vote count. Crucially, the OAS claimed in reference to the halt in the preliminary vote count that ‘an irregularity on that scale is a determining factor in the outcome’ in favor of Morales, which acted as the primary quantitative evidence to their allegations of ‘clear manipulation of the TREP system … which affected the results of both that system and the final count.'”
I have to admit that as someone who is definitely not an expert when it comes to how election processes in Latin American countries function, I would have believed this explanation. But then again, precisely for this reason we should pay close attention to what real experts have to say. So let’s get back to that report and see what John Curiel and Jack R. Williams made of this:
“Our results were straightforward. There does not seem to be a statistically significant difference in the margin before and after the halt of the preliminary vote. Instead, it is highly likely that Morales surpassed the 10-percentage-point margin in the first round.”
In the article they go into much greater detail as to how they reached that conclusion but for the sake of this opinion piece I think that this is enough information to give us some context. I really encourage you to read the entire article for yourself as it does sharpen your understanding of how these elections work. Additionally, I feel that informing ourselves now will help us approach the next fraud allegation even more critically. Because we can be sure that there will be more of these in the future.
Why we have to care
It is horrifying to me that a false allegation like this one has lead to so much suffering. Even if the whole situation would now be magically solved, which it won’t, there are already so many people who have died because of it. This to me is the most important lesson of this appalling mess. Politics nowadays has become such a tribal culture that as soon as a situation like this one in Bolivia arises we cannot remain rational about it.
It has to be possible to discuss such a subject matter without immediately being sorted into one of two camps. Oh, so you think there might be a chance that this election was not rigged? Morales-Supporter, Communist! Arguments like these are pointless and incredibly exhausting. I also wonder why people have so rigid views when it comes to socialist leaders. However, when it comes to the US-government I have a suspicion. Concerning foreign affairs, the US State Department is rarely interested in “human rights” or “democracy” or “western values”. The US’ approach is very much imperialistic. Why does the US despise North Korea? Iran? Venezuela? Bolivia? Cuba? Is it because of the human suffering in those countries? Because they care about the people living there? I would argue that this is not the case. The US despise these countries because they have no control over them. Again, I want to point out here that this does not automatically mean that I endorse any of these regimes. I’ll say it loud and clear: fuck authoritarian regimes. I strongly believe in the power of the people but that also means that I feel an obligation to call out ALL actions that go against that.
When a right-wing party comes into power and I lament that fact, some of my conservative friends will sometimes say to me: “That’s democracy, like it or not you have to respect the results”. Fine, you may well have a point here, I will gladly concede that. But then let me ask you: why does this just apply to western societies? Why is it that when racist bigots take office in Europe the “people’s will” has to be respected but when Latinos or Africans come together and vote for a leader we don’t like the election must have been rigged? Why do we still treat these countries like colonies that have to align with our interests? Why do we still think that our way of living has to be the norm for the rest of the planet? When will we stop talking about freedom and actually just respect our fellow human beings in different parts of the world?
The story of the Bolivian elections is not about politics for me. It is simply about respect. You don’t have to like this or that politician or party. Nobody asks you to. But if we actually believe an ounce of what we preach to the rest of the world then we should respect the decision of people who come together in legitimate and just elections to decide on the future of their country.
*”Lawfare is the misuse of legal systems and principles against an enemy, such as by damaging or delegitimizing them, tying up their time or winning a public relations victory” (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawfare)
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