The United States, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and the 28-member European Union are absolutely right to question Bolivia’s authoritarian President Evo Morales’ dubious Oct. 20 election victory. But they should do much more than that.
If they want to prevent another full-blown dictatorship in Latin America, they should declare Morales a “illegitimate” if he proclaims himself president in January. That’s exactly what they did when Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro took office this year after rigging the 2018 elections.
By many standards, Morales already is a de facto dictator. He not only controls all major government institutions, but has changed the laws repeatedly to stay in power beyond constitutional term limits. Among other things, Morales violated a Feb. 21, 2016 referendum that he himself called for to be able to bypass constitutional term limits. Morales lost that referendum, but ran anyway.
In my long telephone interview, Bolivia’s leading opposition candidate and former President Carlos Mesa, who is demanding a runoff, said that the fraudulent Oct. 20 elections were very similar to Venezuela’s 2018 elections. Therefore, they should draw the same reaction from the world’s diplomatic community, he said.
“Today, I would describe Morales as an authoritarian president who maintains a democratic facade,” Mesa told me. “But he if manages to carry out his ongoing election fraud and takes office on January 22, he would become an illegitimate president. He would become a dictator.”
Morales had hoped to win a fourth term in office by the legally required 10-point margin by running against more than half a dozen opposition candidates. If that didn’t work, opposition leaders told me ahead of the Oct. 20 vote, he would resort to outright fraud.
At about 8 p.m. on election night, an official ballot count showed that, with 83 percent of the votes counted, Morales was winning by a 7 percent margin, way below the 10-point margin he needed to avoid a runoff. Morales would most likely lose a second round, because most major opposition candidates had vowed to support Mesa the second time around.
But, inexplicably, the government’s electronic vote-counting system went down after its 8 p.m. bulletin and stayed silent for the next 23 hours. When new results were announced almost a day later, with nearly 95 percent of the votes counted, the official voting trend had changed, and Morales miraculously was ahead by nearly 10 points, setting the stage for a first-round victory.
A 92-person electoral observation mission with experts from 24 countries of the Organization of American States, and that had been invited by Bolivia’s government, issued a statement denouncing that the sudden change in the voting pattern after the 23 hour interruption. It said the new ballot count was “difficult to explain” and “did not coincide” with two quick counts carried out by reliable independent companies.
The OAS election observers concluded that Morales most likely had not won in the first round, and that “the best option would be to convene a second-round vote.” The United States, the European Union and Latin America’s biggest democracies — except, shamefully, Mexico — supported the recommendation. Cuba and Venezuela immediately celebrated Morales’ “heroic victory.”
Mesa told me that he will present evidence of widespread fraud, which he says was done mainly by altering the vote numbers when they were manually transcribed from handwritten ballots to computers.
“There was a gigantic number of voting places in which I had, let’s say, 161 votes in the manual tally, and only 61 votes in the electronic tally,” Mesa said.
My opinion: Bolivia is the latest example of a growing normalization of electoral fraud in Latin America, following the most recent instances in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Honduras.
Unfortunately, President Trump has little moral authority to champion a democracy crusade in Latin America, following his blatant embrace of dictators in North Korea, Russia, and Turkey.
However, the United States, Latin America and Europe should be ready to declare Morales a full-blown dictator if he proclaims himself president in January without going through a second-round vote. Because that’s what he would be — if he’s not one already.