Bolivia’s presidential election passed peacefully on Sunday but the result might not be known for days, after the body overseeing the vote scrapped the release of fast-count projections.
Opinion polls in the run-up to the ballot suggested the two men with a realistic chance of victory were Luis Arce, a former finance minister who has the backing of longtime leader Evo Morales, and Carlos Mesa, a centrist who served as president for two tumultuous years from 2003-05. A third candidate, rightwing nationalist Luis Camacho, was trailing a long way back.
The vote comes almost exactly a year after one of the most contentious elections in Bolivia’s history, when Mr Morales claimed to have won but was forced to quit amid widespread accusations of fraud. To some extent, this year’s vote is a judgment on his 14 years in power, which were marked by political stability and brisk economic growth but also by his increasingly authoritarian rule towards the end of his time in office.
There have been worries Sunday’s election could be marred by violence. Mr Arce has said the only way he could lose is if it was rigged while Mr Mesa has claimed Mr Arce’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) was fundamentally undemocratic. He said he feared the MAS would accept nothing less than a victory, whatever the results showed.
To win, a candidate needs either 50 per cent of ballots cast or 40 per cent plus a 10 per cent lead over their nearest rival. If no one reaches either of these thresholds, the vote goes to a second round on November 29.
On Saturday night, hours before polls opened, Bolivia’s electoral court announced that it would not issue quick-count projections as it has in previous elections. It described the decision as a cautionary measure.
The MAS said the “last-minute innovation” undermined trust in the whole process while Mr Mesa, having cast his vote in La Paz on Sunday morning, told reporters: “It’s not ideal but we understand.”
In last year’s presidential election, Mr Morales used fast projections to claim that he had won what would have been a fourth term in office. The Organization of American States later audited the results and found widespread evidence of MAS fraud.
Days later, under heavy pressure from the armed forces, Mr Morales resigned and fled into exile, first to Mexico and then to Argentina, where he remains. Thousands of his protesters poured on to Bolivia’s streets demanding his reappointment and claiming the OAS had fixed the result. At least 30 people were killed in the post-election violence.
Since then, the country has been governed on an interim basis by Jeanine Áñez, a rightwing former senator. She initially said she would not stand in the election, then changed her mind before finally withdrawing from the race last month after successive opinion polls found she was trailing badly.
The Áñez government has warned all sides to respect the results and it deployed a heavy police and army presence across the country on Sunday.
Analysts have warned the election could turn nasty once the results were announced.
“Post-election protests are very likely,” said Rodrigo Riaza, country analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Result margins will be tight and the election could come down to decimal points. Combine that with a polarised society that distrusts the electoral process and you have the perfect ingredients for another disputed election.”
He said that even if the transition to a new government passes peacefully “victory could be a poisoned chalice”.
“There is a long list of potential triggers that could lead to mass protests and a shortlived government. No matter what happens with this election, political instability is the new normal in Bolivia.”
Mariano Machado, a senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, warned there was “a high risk of civil unrest no matter what the outcome”.
Voting is mandatory in Bolivia and some 7.3m people were on the electoral register. Bolivians living abroad were also eligible to vote, which caused some problems because of coronavirus restrictions. In Chile, for example, Bolivians could only vote in the capital Santiago, a long way from northern Chile where many of them live.
Sunday’s vote, which is also an election for new senators and members of congress, was initially scheduled for May but was postponed twice because of coronavirus.