Democracy is not guaranteed by elections alone

By Sir Ronald Sanders 

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the U.S. and the OAS.  He is also a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.   The view expressed are entirely his own) 

A bizarre moment at the 50th session of the general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), on October 20 and 21, was a claim by the outgoing Foreign Minister, Karen Longaric, that her government had brought democracy to Bolivia. 

It was the people of Bolivia who had brought democracy to Bolivia – and everybody knew it. Ms Longaric was one of those who had helped to deny it. 

Most Bolivians, resentful of Ms Longaric and her party that had assumed government one year ago with the help of the military, turfed them out through the power of the ballot.  On November 11, 2019, the commander of the armed forces, Williams Kaliman, announced that “we ask(ed) the president of the state (Evo Morales) to renounce his presidential mandate”.   It was hardly a request that Morales could refuse with the armed forces arrayed against him. 

The military instruction to Morales to renounce his Presidency and leave Bolivia came after Presidential elections were declared fraudulent by an audit team from the OAS.  The team’s findings were hotly disputed, including by the New York Times which, on June 7, 2020 said that, “a study by independent researchers, using data obtained by The New York Times from the Bolivian electoral authorities, has found that the Organization of American States’ statistical analysis was itself flawed”. 

Recalling this event at the OAS 50th general assembly, Maximiliano Reyes Zúñiga, the Mexican representative, placed responsibility for the “flawed” analysis directly in the hands of Luis Almagro, the OAS Secretary-General.  He stated, “Mexico suggests to Mr. Luis Almagro that he submit himself to a process of self-criticism of his actions against the OAS Charter and for hurting Bolivia’s democracy, to determine if he still has the necessary moral authority to lead this organization”. 

In any event, in November 2019, the Bolivian military installed Jeanine Añez, a member of the Civic Community party, as President.  She pledged to hold fresh elections within three months in February 2020.  That pledge was also given to the member states of the OAS at a subsequent meeting of the Permanent Council.  But the February date became May, and then September and finally October, amid growing violence in the country, including atrocities against the indigenous people who are the main supporters of Morales party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS).   

No effort was made in the OAS to hold Añez’s government to account because, hypocritically, it had become an ally of powerful governments in their campaigns to target selected countries, particularly Venezuela and Nicaragua.  Only increasing agitation by the Bolivian people eventually led to elections on October 18, 2020. 

88.42 percent of Bolivia’s seven million voters turned out at the election, giving Morales’ successor as the leader of MAS, Luis Arce, 55.18 percent of the vote in the first round.  There was no room for the OAS, or any elections observation mission, to claim fraud.  For many, this overwhelming number served to reenforce the view that Morales had also won the 2019 elections and had been wrongfully denied it.   

Despite MAS’ convincing win, all is not well in Bolivia.   Luis Arce, the President-elect, will not be sworn-in until November 8.  In the meantime, much mischief can be made, and there are those who are agitating it. 

On October 27, crowds were organized outside military barracks in four areas of Bolivia, calling for the armed forces to intervene to overturn the result of the October 18 general election.  The ethnic group, who had ruled the country for decades prior to Morales, and who grabbed power for a year under Añez, is angry at having to relinquish control.  Among the organized crowds were far-right militia groups, threatening violence if the result is not overturned. 

However, the military is keenly aware that the large number of MAS supporters would not tolerate another installation of a government they did not elect.  These supporters are already demanding action against the military for killing protesters opposed to the removal of Morales last year.  They want Arce to punish those responsible, something he is unlikely to do, given the impracticality of it.  Therefore, an uneasy truce is more likely with the troops staying in their barracks, and the commanders maintaining their constitutional role.  At least for now. 

Bolivian society is riven by deep ethnic divisions. Racist discourse, religious bigotry and regional rivalry have long been a feature of the country’s politics. The hostility has re-emerged in a nation divided between a wealthier, more European-descended lowland east and a more indigenous, poorer, highland west. 

This situation will call for careful handling by the new Arce government.  While those opposed to his government on grounds of ethnic superiority are a minority, they comprise the far-right which is given to violence, and have links to other far-right, ideological groups in the hemisphere.   

In seeking reparations for slavery, CARICOM countries have made it clear that they also want reparation for genocide against indigenous people.  That is why shortly after Añez’s government took office, Ambassadors representing the 14 independent CARICOM nations at the OAS, produced a resolution, taking a strong position against discrimination and violence toward the indigenous people in Bolivia.  It was adopted by a majority vote of only one vote to the vexation of governments at the OAS, allied to the Añez government.   

Fortunately, on October 21, with no shred of doubt surrounding the will of the majority of the Bolivian people in the 2020 elections, the US government declared that it “looks forward to working with the new, democratically elected government on matters of mutual interest”.  

Nonetheless, unease remains among some hemispheric nations ruled by a particular ethnic and rightist elite.  Consequently, the situation in Bolivia will now have to be watched carefully for attempts to undermine Arce’s government by forces inside and outside the country.   

Democracy is not guaranteed by elections alone.  Nations that care about democracy will have to help safeguard it. 

Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com 

29 October 2020 

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