Bolivia’s populist president, Evo Morales, has said he wants to win a third term in office with a whopping 74 percent of the vote in the Oct. 12 elections, and, judging from what his leading contender told me in an interview, it wouldn’t be surprising if Morales gets his wish.
Samuel Doria Medina, a wealthy businessman who is the leading opposition candidate, freely admits he is participating in a fraudulent electoral process, one in which all the rules and practices are aimed at helping the president win.
First, the elections “won’t have a neutral umpire” because the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is loyal to the president, Doria Medina told me. Second, the government has been using massive public funds to flood the country with pro-Morales propaganda for several years, while limiting opposition propaganda to the last 27 days before the election. Third, the government is even banning opposition TV spots it doesn’t like, Doria Medina said.
“They have aired up to 60 negative spots on television against us, and when we tried to respond to them with our own spots, the Electoral Tribunal denied us permission,” Doria Medina said. “Likewise, we put campaign signs on the streets, and the government ordered police to remove them. The government has a monopoly of public signs.”
Considering the government’s virtual control of the media and its massive propaganda expenditures, it’s no wonder that Morales is ahead in the polls, Doria Medina says.
According to the latest poll published by the daily newspaper El Deber, Morales is leading with 56 percent, followed by Doria Medina with 17 percent, and former president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga with 6 percent.
If the entire election process is tainted, I asked him, why are you participating? He responded that while the pro-government Supreme Electoral Tribunal has presided over an inequitable election process, “the actual counting of the votes will be done by the citizens who will be selected at random.”
In an effort to encourage government critics to turn out and vote, Doria Medina said the counting of the votes by randomly selected citizens means that “there won’t be fraud on Election Day.” He added that opposition voters could win an upset, as they did in local elections in the Amazonian state of Beni last year.
On that occasion, pre-election polls said the government candidate would win, but the opposition won. “In Bolivia, polls sometimes have a 33 percent margin of error,” he said.
Asked about claims by exiled opposition politicians that Doria Medina and other opposition candidates are part of a “domesticated opposition” that is in fact helping the Morales government pretend that Bolivia is a democracy, Doria Medina responded: “It’s very easy to make that kind of assertion from Miami. We are the oppositionists who have stayed here, and who are confronting the Bolivian government.”
Toward the end of the interview, I asked Doria Medina why are there so many opposition candidates, considering that current polls show that none of them can beat the president single-handedly.
Doria Medina responded that there are much fewer opposition candidates than in previous elections. “Ours is the only ticket that represents an alliance,” he said. On Election Day, people will decide not to waste their votes and will support his ticket, he added.
My opinion: Doria Medina is doing the right thing by participating in what is clearly a sham election process, because it would be a mistake not to take advantage of the little space for criticism that is left in Bolivia.
Morales’ manipulation of the election process goes far beyond the abuses denounced by Doria Medina. In recent years, Morales has sent his leading opponents, such as former Cochabamba Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa, into exile or jail.
Morales’ candidacy for a third term is in itself a legal travesty: The president changed the constitution in 2008 to, in effect, authorize him to run for a third consecutive term — prohibited under the previous constitution — under the dubious argument that his first term didn’t count because it happened before the country had been “re-founded” as the “Plurinational State of Bolivia.” You can guess who “re-founded” the country.
So on Oct. 12, when Morales is proclaimed the winner of Bolivia’s election by a landslide, and Organization of American States observers declare that the vote count was fraud-free, democracy supporters everywhere should be skeptical. Much like in Venezuela, the vote-counting on Election Day may be clean, but the entire election process will be a joke.