The Bolivian Elections I: Five Things to Understand About the Process
Welcome to the start of the Democracy Center’s Blog coverage of the December 6th Bolivian Presidential and Congressional election!
In the weeks ahead we will be publishing a series of posts looking at various aspects of the December vote and in many different forms, including analyses of the issues, video interviews with candidates running with the major parties, views from social movement leaders, and Election Day coverage in real time from around Bolivia.
So we begin with Part I: Five Things to Understand About the Process. We will follow-up shortly with a look at the candidates.
This post was co-written with the Democracy Center’s newest team member, our intern Jessica Aguirre.
Bolivia's Elections: Five Things to Understand About the Process
Slowly the streets of Bolivia are filling with motorcades, political rallies, handed-out flyers, and the other familiar trappings of Bolivian elections. From afar readers try to take stock of what the political coca leaves have to say about the December 6th vote. Behind that vote are key things about the Bolivian election process that are useful to understand.
1. Electing a President: What does it take to win?
Bolivian presidential votes, before Evo Morales’s huge win in 2005, traditionally ended with two or three candidates in a close tie with voter support just above 20%. This, in turn, begat a series of ‘negotiated presidencies’ in which rival parties put together power sharing coalitions primarily aimed at dividing the spoils (jobs, corruption, etc.) of power.
Morales avoided such a governing coalition in December 2005 by winning a straight majority of the vote (53%) outright. He may well repeat that achievement again this December. But if he doesn’t, then Bolivian presidential selection will get tossed into the rules laid out by the new constitution.
In the new constitution, the President of Bolivia can be elected in one of three ways. The simplest is to win 50% of the vote plus one. Absent any candidate doing that, the second option kicks in, a runoff vote between the two top-finishing candidates.
However, for this election only, under a special Ley Transitoria Electoral there is a third option and one that could easily determine the outcome in December. If the top finishing candidate does not win a majority of the votes, but does finish more than 10% ahead of the second place candidate, he (all the leading candidates are men) becomes President without a runoff. This is why there was an incentive for opposition parties to form a united front, an objective it was never really able to complete. The most recent polling shows Morales with 47% of the vote, but running 30% ahead of his nearest opponent, former Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa.
If this holds, Morales will be a big winner, majority or not, on December 6th.
2. Is Evo Running for Re-election?
Another fundamental question is this: Constitutionally, is President Evo Morales running for the last five-year term he will be allowed to serve, or will he be eligible to run once again in 2014, potentially extending his Presidency for as long as 14 years? This is a very charged political question in Bolivia, where opposition leaders have repeatedly warned that Morales has his sights on a never-ending Presidency, in the mold of Castro in Cuba. Throughout Latin America concerns about stay-put Presidents have led to a series of one-term limits (with ex-presidents allowed to seek office again after one-term out).
This was always the case in Bolivia as well, and Presidential re-election was a topic of heated debate during the process of writing and approving the constitution. MAS and Morales originally backed unlimited chances to run for re-election, and then compromised that down to one chance.
But, since Morales was first elected before the new Constitution was passed, technically this first term does not officially count as one of the two continuous terms allowed. Therefore, he could legally seek another re-election in 2014 (if he is elected in December). It was precisely this concern that led Morales, during the Constitutional debates, to publicly promise that he will not seek re-election in 2014. But Morales supporters and opponents alike know that promises like these can become pretty flexible when faced with actually leaving office.
3. That Confusing Congressional Election System
It is not only the Bolivian Presidency that is up for a vote in December, but the newly constituted Bolivian Congress as well. Important changes made in the constitution have opened up real possibilities for change in the composition of the Congress.
Bolivia’s Congress (officially known now as the Plurinational Legislative Assembly), in typical form is composed of two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Departmental Representatives (i.e. House of Representatives and Senate).
The more populous Chamber of Deputies, with 130 seats, will have members elected in three different ways. The “Uninominal” members, 68 of them, are elected directly by the voters in specific geographic districts. The 54 “Plurinominal” seats are divided amongst the political parties according to the vote each party gets in the elections and those members are appointed by their parties. The new constitution adds a third twist, the election of 8 additional deputies who will represent specific indigenous areas.
The Chamber of Departmental Representatives (or Senate) is composed of four elected members from each of the nine departments, the same number regardless of population. These four seats are also divided amongst the parties, based on the share of the vote won by each.
MAS and Morales have been clear about their aim to win two-thirds control of the Congress. But the formula still cuts to MAS’ disadvantage, because of the over-representation of the smaller departments and the guarantee of seats to the losing opposition.
4. Polling in Bolivia: A Tricky Business
Who is actually ahead in the electoral race? Many Evo supporters are confident that the election is tied up, and they have ground to be optimistic. With recent polls showing Evo Morales with 47 percent popularity versus Manfred Reyes Villa’s 16 percent and Samuel Doria Medina’s 12 percent, there is good reason to believe they are right.
Nevertheless, polling in Bolivia is a tricky business and notoriously inaccurate. And these inaccuracies tend to actually translate into Morales’ vote being undercounted by polls. The reason why is simple. The Bolivian electorate is significantly divided between urban voters and rural. While Morales might get 50% in cities like Cochabamba, his support dips much lower in opposition hotbeds such as Santa Cruz. Yet when one travels beyond the cities you can find Morales backing that tops 80%. And most Bolivian polls focus on the cities and not the rural areas. Few polltakers will be found tromping about poor rural provinces such as Tapacari, notepad in hand. Yet in some of these areas MAS election propaganda often provides the brightest splash of color around.
5. Voting by Fingerprint
Lastly, one of the most important run-ups to the election, the process of registering voters, has been marked by the application of a new technology – voting by fingerprint or “Biometric Registry” as it is called here. Bolivians have been standing in-line for months to take their turn to press their digits into the system. Despite complaints about the wait, and warnings by opposition figures that MAS planned to use the system to engineer Election Day fraud, the registration process seems to have gone smoothly. National election officials report that more than 4.1 million voters registered under the new system as of early October.
This is also the first year that Bolivians abroad will be able to participate in the elections, and registration was carried out until mid-October in Argentina, Spain, the United States, and Brazil (the four countries that have the highest percentages of Bolivian migrants). Registration efforts abroad have been less successful however, owing to the difficulties of organizing registration centers and fear by many undocumented immigrants that they might expose themselves to local authorities.
Next Up: The Presidential Candidates