Bolivia will hold its presidential election on October 18. Last year’s controversial elections led to widespread protests and the eventual ouster of president Evo Morales. These upcoming elections are scheduled just before the one-year anniversary of that vote. The U.S. Embassy recommends that organizations operating in Bolivia prepare for potential fuel and food shortages and transportation restrictions in the days and weeks following the elections. This report explains concerns that this election will prompt widespread protests, transport disruptions, and violence throughout the country.
The first round of the election will occur on October 18, although the entire process is likely to extend for next several months. In order to avoid a run-off, the leading candidate must win either 50% of the vote, or 40% of the vote with a lead of 10% over the runner-up. Current polling suggests that this outcome is unlikely, meaning that we can expect a run-off election between the top two candidates on November 29. Inauguration Day, traditionally held in late January, is a hard deadline for the transfer of power. In the case of a contested election, or if there are alleged irregularities in either October or November, the electoral commission will likely try to resolve them by the end of the calendar year.
Currently, seven candidates are running, although only three have significant support. Polling in first place with around 30% of the vote, Luis Arce represents the left-wing Movement for Socialism (MAS), Evo Morales’s political party. Throughout September, Arce looked to have enough support to win in the first round without a run-off, but since interim president Jeanine Áñez dropped out of the race three weeks ago, Arce’s lead has shrunken to below the 10% threshold. Comunidad Ciudadana’s moderate candidate, Carlos Mesa, currently hovers at around 25% in polling, and right-wing Creemos’s Fernando Camacho polls third at 13%. Polls suggest that if the elections go to a run-off, many of the smaller political parties will rally around Carlos Mesa as a main challenger to Arce. This frames the election as a referendum on last year’s ouster of Morales and the legitimacy of his MAS Party, which maintains a strong plurality even as the majority of voters oppose it. Internal divisions within MAS over party leadership concessions to the Áñez government also threaten the historic dominance of the party.
This election comes almost exactly a year after 2019’s presidential election that precipitated massive protests throughout the country. Protests erupted after the vote count was temporarily suspended. When the vote count resumed 24 hours later, incumbent President Evo Morales received a higher allocation of votes than he had previously amassed, pushing him over the 10% lead needed to avoid a run-off election and sparking concern that the final count was fraudulent.
After three weeks of protest, opposition senator Jeanine Áñez took power as an interim president and Morales fled to Mexico and then Argentina, where he currently resides. Áñez’s assumption of the presidency on November 11 sparked more violent protest amid allegations that the interim government had conducted a military coup. Despite promises of a quick transition and a new election within 90 days, Áñez repeatedly delayed the vote, citing fears over the spread of COVID-19. Protests erupted again in late July following another election delay, temporarily closing major roads into La Paz, Cochabamba, and El Alto. After a year of turmoil and protests, these upcoming elections are likely to reignite disruptive protests throughout the country.
Large protests and potential roadblocks following the October 18 election are likely. In a recent security alert, the U.S. Embassy warned: “In the days leading up to, and following, the October 18 elections, U.S. citizen residents and travelers anywhere in Bolivia should expect political rallies, mass civic town halls (cabildos), as well as protests, strikes, and roadblocks related to a variety of issues. The duration of these possible protests is unknown. U.S. citizen residents and travelers should be prepared for potential grocery and gas shortages.”
Roadblocks are a key tool for Bolivian protesters demanding change. Protests are especially disruptive in many of Bolivia’s main cities because road networks without multiple points of egress make it easy to choke off transit into and out of the cities. Protests often target major supply routes connecting the city; in August, three weeks of roadblocks and protests against election delays prevented shipments of food and medical oxygen from reaching El Alto and Cochabamba. Given La Paz and El Alto’s dependence on lower-elevation locations for most of their food and, in the current pandemic, medical oxygen, they are especially susceptible to the impact of roadblocks.
Many individuals are stockpiling food in case of prolonged shortages and roadblocks to the major cities. In response to the August roadblocks, some organizations choose to reroute their supply chains that typically rely on highways, flying their goods through the major airports instead. However, this tactic is also vulnerable to protests targeting airports, a frequent occurrence historically and in 2019 along roads connecting El Alto International Airport (LPB) to La Paz. Organizations should prepare for potential paralysis of transportation into, out of, and throughout major cities like La Paz, El Alto, and Cochabamba. Find an updated map of road closures here.
In addition to their impact on access to food, medicine, supply chains, and transportation, protests also have the potential to escalate into violence. Thirty-five people died in the 2019 protests, and 300 more were injured. Be careful about transiting through cities and prepared to shelter in place if large portions of the cities experience protest activity. Protests may change depending on the election outcome; for example, there are large numbers of Arce supporters in El Alto, while Santa Cruz remains a Camacho stronghold.
There are always concerns around election times that high tensions or political rallies will spill over into larger protests. Given how quickly protesters gathered last year, and more recently in August, large protests are expected to form quickly, regardless of the election outcome. However, some particularly worrisome outcomes could spark particularly protracted or violent protests. OSAC is watching closely in case of:
Voting Irregularities: The first potential tripwire for severe protests would be if the electorate views the vote as fraudulent, or if there are voting irregularities. While there is currently no reason to expect that the results will be fraudulent, last year’s allegations remain at the forefront of many voters’ minds. The situation could easily become politicized if any party casts doubt on the results. The elections will feature international observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union.
Party Fractures: Finally, even if the elections are free and fair and lead to a peaceful transfer of power, tensions remain high between different political factions. Many MAS voters feel disaffected in the aftermath of last election and continue to view the Áñez government as having effectuated a coup against a left-wing government that should currently be in power. Some MAS factions may react if the election brings a conservative government to power. MAS itself is also experiencing major internal fractures, as some leadership attempts to distance the party from Morales’s legacy. If MAS loses the election, protests are expected to be especially explosive.
Equally, although non-MAS voters make up the majority of the electorate, they cover a wide range of ideological viewpoints from center-left to far right. The opposition may form an uneasy coalition in opposition to MAS that lacks the stability to govern smoothly. Moderate and right-wing factions may also react angrily if MAS wins a plurality and continues to govern as a minority party. Even before last year’s election turmoil, Evo Morales was already facing a legitimacy crisis, and a return to MAS party rule would be contentious.
The outcome of these elections remains unpredictable at this point. Regardless, it is important to prepare for a range of possible outcomes, understanding the above scenarios as tripwires that could spark more severe large-scale protest. Monitoring the political climate in the lead up to and aftermath of the elections will be critical to maintain situational awareness and keep personnel and facilities safe in protracted protests, shutdowns, and roadblocks.
For more information in security in Bolivia and across Latin America, contact OSAC’s Americas Team and consider the following resources: