A Huge Turnout in Bolivia’s First Judicial Elections Could Be The Worse Thing For The Ruling Party

Here’s my article in English on the Judicial Elections in Bolivia yesterday. Was left without internet, so couldn’t put it up. But was quite a day.

The polling stations have closed and the ballot papers – Gargantuan though they were – have been safely deposited in their boxes.

In a few years time maybe the history books will confirm that today the Bolivian people were part of “historic and unprecedented elections, the likes of which have never been seen before in the world”, as President Evo Morales boldly claimed as he cast his vote in Chapare this morning.

At almost the same time, hundreds of miles away in the Vice President´s residence in La Paz, his deputy Álvaro García Linera was trying to convince journalists these were nothing more than judicial elections. Politics, apparently, didn’t enter the equation.

Unfortunately for him, those same journalists were at the polling stations, watching on as Juan Del Granado and Samuel Doria Medina cast their votes. If there had been any doubt, the leaders of the Movement without Fear (MSM) and United Nation (UN) parties saw to it that that ended there.

Del Granado, ironically a former close ally of the president now turned his fiercest opponent,  knew how to make the most of the media’s presence and with a flourish marked a huge ´NO’ across his voting slip.

“I want no-one to stay at home. I want every Bolivian to take back his right today. Let´s say no to authoritarianism, no to a government that’s broken the promises it made to all of us,” he said.

There’s simply no escaping the fact that these elections have become partisan and politicised and neither the supposed constitutional ban on campaigning nor the best exhortations of the vice president have been able to stop that.

Interestingly, however, there does seem to be one point of agreement between all concerned parties. From the president of the Supreme Tribunal of the Electorate (TSE), the Ombudsman, and the Policing Minister to the opposition and the president himself, all have been outspoken in calling for a massive turnout today.

In this morning´s press conference the vice president said he wanted to see all 5million plus registered voters cast their vote, but admitted he suspected only thousands would actually turn out.  Nevertheless, he added that he hoped the media wouldn´t focus on figures and comparisons with previous elections – this was a victory for democracy and that´s what mattered. Alas, we journalists can’t ignore the facts either.

Yesterday, the TSE announced that the number of registered voters had gone up by 43% in the last six years. In other words, since the ruling party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) came into power. And according to the Plurinational Electoral Commission’s official figures, a huge 95.25% of the electorate turned out in the presidential elections in 2009. To put that into context, when President Obama was voted into the White House just the year before in 2008, those who concern themselves with such things rejoiced at America’s highest voter turnout for forty years.  Less than 62% voted. Bolivia is the country that truly breaks the records in this arena. Expectations of a genuinely massive voter turnout here are very well founded.

Nevertheless, my guess is that behind closed doors the MAS faithful are secretly hoping recent Bolivian history doesn’t repeat itself and it’s the vice president’s suspicion and not his declared wish that’s fulfilled when the votes are counted.

If it does turn out that Bolivians have turned out in their millions, it’s clearly MAS which has the most to worry about. The opposition will have their fingers – and for good measure their toes, arms and eyes – crossed for a huge ´No´ vote. But if not, they have little to lose. The judges themselves – 56 of them – won’t really be affected. They’re elected on a simple majority. Come what may, they´ll take up their posts on January 1.

On the contrary, a huge ´NO´ or null vote could very well turn these judicial elections into the much-touted referendum on Evo Morales and his government.

La Paz resident Victor Villareal said his decision to spoil his ballot paper was definitely a message to the government:

“We weren´t given the chance to chose the candidates. MAS chose them and this whole vote is just a smoke screen. The government’s trying to co-opt the Judiciary to make it easier for Evo to be reelected,” he said.

“Voting ‘NO’ was a message, a warning to the government that they can´t govern by force. I voted for Evo, but I won’t be voting for him again,” he added.

However, analysis of these elections shouldn’t and can’t stop there.  No doubt opponents of the government –so comfortable with the word ´no´ these days – will disagree, but spoiling the ballot paper is by no means the same as a ringing endorsement for them and their policies. We´ll have to wait to the next general election to see how the dice fall on that score. Those who spoilt their ballot paper did so for a number of reasons: supporting the opposition was just one of them.

For example, can anyone doubt that the indigenous marchers making their way from TIPNIS now and their supporters would have had very different reasons for voting the way have?

I’d wager that many of those who spoilt their ballot paper today were thinking the same as Alfredo Lopéz, a taxi driver from La Paz:

“I didn’t have a clue who the candidates were. My ´NO´ wasn’t a rejection of the government, it was a rejection ofthis process and the way it’s been managed. There’s been a complete lack of information,” he said.

So, the polling stations have closed and the count’s begun. But when we do have the result and it’s time for the analysis to begin, that analysis shouldn’t be superficial. This Sunday may indeed come to merit the word “historical” if we take the time to get to the bottom of the real message that lies within the people’s scratched and scrawled ballot papers.

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