Sorting fact from fiction about the crisis in Bolivia

Amid Bolivia’s political unrest, coup and electoral fraud accusations spread on social media

Sorting fact from fiction about the crisis in Bolivia

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Amid Bolivia’s political unrest, coup and electoral fraud accusations spread on social media

(Source: Presidencia de Perú/Wikimedia Commons, left; Paulo Fabre/Wikimedia Commons, right)

After 13 years as President of Bolivia, Evo Morales resigned on November 10, 2019. The decision followed three weeks of protests in the country due to fraud allegations in the October 20 elections.

For some, Morales’s resignation has been labeled a “coup” by those that saw the pressure of the military as pivotal in the decision or that Morales was forcibly removed as a democratically elected president, presuming the most recent elections were legitimate. For others, it was regarded as a victory for democracy by those that saw Morales’s government as increasingly authoritarian or illegitimate. The exaggerated level of bias many have displayed on social media regarding the events in the country also makes for fertile ground in which mis- and disinformation can grow.

Those who called it “a coup” focused on his legitimacy and the progress on poverty and equity in Bolivia during his tenure, whereas those who did not pointed at Morales’s manipulation of the electoral system as a valid pretext for his removal. This piece looks at three important contextual questions used in the overall question of whether the events that took place in Bolivia were a coup d’etat.

Left Twitter versus right Twitter

For the most part, in the English-language Twitter sphere — as with Spanish and other languages — the debate has played out largely along partisan lines.

High-profile Twitter left-wing accounts, such as that of former U.S. presidential candidate and Green Party member Jill Stein, promoted the idea that it was a coup.

In contrast, high-profile right-wing accounts, such as that of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, claimed that Morales’s removal was not a coup.

Did poverty and inequality decrease under Morales?

Yes. According to the World Bank, the percentage of Bolivians living below the national poverty line ($1.90 USD/day) fell from 59.9 percent in 2006, when Morales first came to power, to 34.6 percent in 2018 (last available data). Inequality also fell: the country’s Sini index was 57.6 out of 100 in 2006 and 44 in 2017 (last available data). A high Sini score indicates that a country is more unequal.

The Morales government combined economic growth with redistribution. His leftist government came to power right before the “commodity boom,” an increase in demand for commodities worldwide linked to China’s economic growth. The boom benefited many Latin American countries, including Bolivia, an exporter of oil and gas. The strong economic indicators, however, did not dissipate in 2014, when the commodity boom came to an end. Since Morales came to power, the country’s GDP has grown an average of 5 percent per year, overperforming most economies in the region as well as that of the United States.

Many of Morales’s supporters, both domestic and international, claimed that the reduction of poverty and inequality under his rule was a leading cause for his removal, what they referred to as a “coup.” While somewhat contra-logical, they claim “it was his victories that fomented this most recent violent backlash.”

Did Morales defy the country’s constitution?

Yes. The ongoing crisis has its roots in 2009, when the Bolivian federal legislature drafted a new constitution, including modifications to the electoral rules. Morales, despite being limited to two terms, claimed that he could run for a third time because his first term happened under the old constitution, i.e., the new constitution had effectively reset his terms in office to zero. The Constitutional Court accepted this argument, and Morales was elected president for the third time in 2014.

Two years later, Morales called for a referendum for the public to decide whether he could run for the fourth time. After Morales lost the referendum, he nevertheless ended up back on the ballot in October 2019 after successfully arguing in front of the Constitutional Court — dominated by his allies — that prohibiting him from running would be a violation of his human rights.

Many of Morales’s opponents denied that it was a coup, in part because he had already gone around the constitution many times in order to hold power and thus was illegitimate.

Was there fraud in the 2019 election?

There is no consensus about this matter.

Bolivia has two vote-counting systems. One is a quick count system known as TREP (Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares, or Preliminary Election Results Transmission), which is aimed at informing the press and the public about voting patterns. The second one is the official count, which is legally binding.

After the voting period is over, results of each individual ballot are aggregated in tally sheets. For the quick count, these results are uploaded via a mobile app and pictures of the sheets are sent to the Civic Registry Service to be counted. The tally sheets are then physically collected and sent to the Departmental Electoral Tribunal (TED), which verifies and counts the votes and inserts them in the official counting system.

On the night of the election, the quick count stopped when 83 percent of the votes had been counted. At this moment, Morales was winning with 45.71 percent of votes, and his opponent Carlos Mesa had 37.84 percent, a difference of 7.87 percentage points. In Bolivia, to avoid a second round, the winner must either have over 50 percent of the vote or over 40 percent with a 10 percentage point lead over the runner-up. At the moment when the quick vote stopped, therefore, the counting pointed toward a second round of elections between Morales and Mesa.

The Organization of American States (OAS) electoral monitoring mission said it was highly unusual that the quick counting system had stopped at the point that it did. A report from the Washington-based think tank Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), however, claimed that the results from the quick count are usually announced once over 80 percent of votes have been counted.

The quick count restarted the next day, until 95 percent of the votes had been counted. Morales ended up with an advantage of more than 10 percentage points, enough to ensure his victory in the first round, which gave rise to fraud allegations. Final results were announced on October 25 and supported the quick count results.

Due to the fraud claims, the OAS formed a commission to audit election results. On November 10, the commission released a report claiming there was evidence of fraud in the elections. The commission analyzed four factors: technology, chain of custody, integrity of the tally sheets, and statistical projections. Among their findings were:

1) Flaws in the transmission system of the quick count and the official count;

2) Forged signatures and alterations on tally sheets;

3) Problems in the chain of custody of election material; and

4) A “highly unlikely trend” in the last 5 percent of the vote count that supposedly pointed toward manipulation.

The last finding, however, was strongly criticized by the CEPR, whose specialists argued that there was no change in the voting trend in the final 5 percent of votes counted, as most of those votes came from rural areas in which Morales polled stronger than Mesa. The CEPR also highlighted that the vote count of the official system never stopped and that the suspicions of fraud apply only to the non-binding quick count. Both results, however, are consistent with one another.

After the OAS released its findings, Morales called for new elections. Still, amid protests, the head of the Armed Forces, Williams Kaliman, went on TV to call for Morales’s resignation, and Morales resigned the same day.

Was it a coup?

There is also no consensus on this question, as the answer depends on which definition of “coup d’état” is being applied. Some academics claim that, with the end of the Cold War, it has become more difficult to distinguish between coups and uprisings.

A coup d’état is usually defined as an attempt by members of the state, usually the military, to force a change in government. In Bolivia, the head of the Armed Forces “suggested” that Morales should leave the government. If this suggestion is understood as a threat, the move can be seen as a coup. But, if we assume it was a suggestion, the situation changes.

“When a large number of Bolivians go to the streets to protest a clear attempt of tampering with elections and this process is successful in removing a dictator from government, this is not a coup,” said Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo. “It is, as far as we know, a victory for democracy. It would be unacceptable if the military took the government or acted in peacetime to oust a president. But from what we saw, they just made it clear that they wouldn’t participate in the attempt to repress protests.”

“It was a coup, because the head of the Armed Forces suggested the ousting of the president. But we still have to see if this coup will strengthen or weaken democracy,” said Steven Levitsky, author of “How Democracies Die,” in an interview with O Globo. Levitsky, as well as other scholars, highlight that coups can serve to support democracy by removing authoritarian leaders from government.

“Saying that Evo Morales suffered a military coup does not necessarily imply that he respected democratic norms,” posted Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at Brazilian think tank Fundacao Getulio Vargas. “In fact, non-democratic governments are often overthrown through non-democratic means, precisely because they cannot easily be voted out of office.”

In the end, because the military was central to Morales’s departure and the legitimacy of the October election was contested, the discussion of whether Morales’s exit qualified as a coup will likely never be resolved as it is now a matter of interpretation.

Follow along on Twitter for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.