What really happened in Bolivia’s October 20 election?
Since the day after the election, the prevailing narrative has been that incumbent President Evo Morales’ first round victory was fraudulent. That Morales, afraid of losing power after 14 years in office, orchestrated a scheme to steal the election.
The controversy stems back to a decision made by Bolivia’s electoral commission to stop updating the preliminary “quick count,” or TREP results and an ensuing statement made by the Organization of American States, which had sent a team to monitor the election.
With about 84 percent of votes counted, the unofficial TREP results showed Morales leading his nearest opponent by about 8 points – shy of the 10 point margin necessary to avoid a runoff election.
At that point, the electoral commision stopped updating the TREP results. When it was resumed about 24 hours later after pressure from the OAS and the opposition, the results showed Morales had cleared the 10-point margin and was on course to win in the first round. The final, official results showed Morales had won by 10.5 points.
But before the official results could be posted, the OAS issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over the supposedly “hard-to-explain” and “drastic” increase in Morales’ lead while the quick count was suspended, implying that the results were a fraud.
Picking up on the OAS’ statement, major media outlets around the globe erroneously reported that the vote count itself had been suspended, apparently confusing the quick count with the official results.
The electoral commission offered a benign explanation for its decision to suspend the quick count, saying that official results were starting to become available and that they did not want to have two different sets of results being updated at the same time.
After completing an audit of the election results, the OAS released a final report last week. In it, the organization stands by its claim that the increase in favor of Morales was inexplicable and also points to 12 instances of alleged “intentional manipulation” on the part of Morales’ government.
In a series of reports published in the wake of the election, the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the rise in Morales’ lead was not “drastic” but was in fact “steady” and “gradual.” Not only was the increase not “hard-to-explain” but it was entirely predictable based on the fact that the late votes were coming from rural regions where Morales is particularly popular, they found.
CEPR is not alone in this assessment. On December 2, 98 economists and statisticians signed an open letter published in the Guardian demanding that the OAS retract its “misleading” statements about the election results. The experts were joined by four U.S. members of Congress, who penned a separate letter to the OAS asking for a response to CEPR’s findings.
Morales, a socialist icon and the first indigenous president of Bolivia, has accepted asylum in Argentina and is barred from running in future elections. Right-wing opposition Senator Jeanine Anez, whose party received only four percent of the vote, currently heads the de facto government after naming herself interim president in the wake of the coup.
Whether or not Morales was indeed guilty of manipulating the results of the election will not change that reality.
But this question will surely be relevant to how Morales – a would-be dictator to some, a heroic champion of the downtrodden to others – will be remembered by history.
And if Morales was indeed innocent and the election results were in fact legitimate, questions over the OAS’ credibility as an impartial election observer would surely follow.
With these stakes in mind, The Globe Post’s Bryan Bowman spoke with Jake Johnston, a Senior Research Associate at CEPR and the author of the organization’s analysis of the OAS’ final election audit report.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity. The full, unedited audio version of the interview is available above.
Bowman: What are some of the major points of contention and some of the biggest problems that you and your colleagues at CEPR identified in the final OAS audit report?
Johnston: I think you sort of have to take it in totality and see what the OAS role has been from the beginning of this because it’s sort of the repetition, at least in this first part, that I think is so important.
And that’s this idea that there was a change in the trend of the vote after the suspension of the preliminary results on the night of the election. The electoral council made its announcement with 84 percent of the votes counted. They provided results that indicated that it would be going to a second round.
But the next day, when new results were released with ninety five percent counted, the the margin increased to about 10 percentage points. And this started a lot of the complaints of fraud. This idea that there had been a drastic trend shift, and that’s exactly what the OAS said the day after the election.
Now, what we’ve seen over and over again is that they didn’t even really consider the idea that these votes could have simply just been coming from different geographical areas – areas that had already shown a clear trend in favor of Morales.
The latest OAS “audit”, repeats a major falsehood from their previous reports, pretending that there was an “unusual” jump in Evo’s vote margin towards the end of the quick count. But the change was in fact gradual, as later-reporting areas were more pro-Evo than earlier ones: pic.twitter.com/oFiUFFAl5H
— Mark Weisbrot (@MarkWeisbrot) November 10, 2019
And so the repetition of this claim by the OAS from the day after the election until the publication of the final report has really had a huge impact because this entire narrative of fraud is really built around this idea that there was some sort of doctoring of votes in between these two periods of time.
And if, in fact, the results were explainable based on the first batch of results, that seriously undermines that entire narrative that’s been building for months and months.
Bowman: The OAS almost immediately characterized the suspension of the TREP – the quick count – as inherently nefarious. But you guys have pointed out that that count had been suspended in prior elections at around the same time, right?
Johnston: That’s right. Now, the preliminary system, the TREP system, this is the first general election [in Bolivia] that it had ever actually been used in. It was first introduced in 2016 and was never intended to get to 100 percent of the vote count. It’s just a preliminary thing.
What is clear is that, you know, something happened on the night of the election with the preliminary count and there was a decision to stop that process. Now, it wasn’t necessarily inherently abnormal because that had been done in similar places in the past.
But the OAS characterized this as unjustified – that there was nothing possible that could have justified the suspension. But they leave out quite a bit of that story.
Bowman: Is there any smoking gun that the OAS claims to have in its final audit report? What do they view as their strongest evidence to support their claims that there was some nefarious action on the part of Morales during the election?
Johnston: So the OAS report focuses extensively on process. 10 out of the 12 findings of “intentional manipulation” relate to the computer system itself relating to the preliminary results. So the accusations they are putting forward are not about the manipulation of results but rather the manipulation of the computer system that could have allowed for the manipulation of the results.
That’s a distinction that is made in the report itself but in very little of the coverage of the report more broadly, including in its press release and how the OAS has presented its report to the world. It’s certainly been presented as confirmation that the results themselves were manipulated.
“I’m convinced that it’s a lithium coup d'état, and then a coup against Evo and all our economic policies,” says @evoespueblo.
— The Intercept (@theintercept) December 17, 2019
Bowman: To put this in context, I was hoping you could speak a bit about the OAS as an institution. Of course, the United States wields a significant amount of influence within the OAS and the Secretary General, Luis Almagro, is quite close with Washington. What are the sort of internal dynamics within the OAS in terms of its political orientation and potential biases?
Johnston: To begin with, you have to look back at the role the OAS has played in elections throughout the hemisphere for many, many years spanning before even the term of Almagro.
For instance, in 2000 in Haiti, the OAS originally signed off on the elections saying they were great. And then they said, ‘oh there were these problems,’ and that was the basis for an aid cut off that precipitated a coup d’etat years later there.
In 2010 and 2011, again in Haiti, the OAS sent a special audit mission similar to the situation in Bolivia, where without performing any statistical analysis, they overturned the results of an election.
Then you have 2017 in Honduras, where there is a big electoral crisis and allegations of fraud. And the OAS sort of dithered and tried to work out an agreement between the two sides. And even though the report actually did say you couldn’t trust the results, everyone in the hemisphere recognized that election and moved forward.
So there’s a history here of the OAS becoming too involved in certain electoral processes, and then pulling the wool over the eyes on certain other processes. And I think certainly you see the political dynamic in that, getting back to your original question.
This situation today with the OAS, I mean, you’ve seen the OAS move extremely close to Washington now. They get around 60 percent of their budget there. And in terms of policy, that’s been abundantly more clear under the leadership of Almagro.
What’s really important to know in this whole environment, as the OAS is involved in the situation Bolivia, is that it’s not just an election in Bolivia that this is related to, but also a re-election process for Almagro for Secretary General. That process is coming up early in 2020 and it’s very clear that he has been working diligently to try and court the right-wing in the region.
Almagro had taken a trip to Bolivia earlier this year and had expressed, actually, tacit approval of Morales’s decision to run again for re-election despite the referendum and that controversy. And he got criticized very, very aggressively by both the Bolivian right-wing, but also Right-Wing forces throughout the region.
So you saw the Bolivian opposition being very critical of the OAS in the run-up to the election. But that, of course, changed very quickly after the election report came out and Morales was forced to resign in the coup d’etat.
And in fact, the U.S. came out and publicly supported Almagro’s bid for re-election in the weeks after that. So clearly there is a lot more geopolitically going on here with the OAS and their own battle for control of the OAS moving forward.
Bowman: Given those dynamics, and given that CEPR’s analysis is so radically divergent from what the OAS has been saying, do you believe that the OAS’ actions in Bolivia were planned or coordinated in advance or that this was an intentional effort from the outset to cast doubt on the integrity of the election and to damage Morales?
Johnston: I think it’s inherently difficult to take a guess at motivation, right? What’s clear to me is that when the OAS released its press release the day after the election citing this inexplicable change in trend and casting doubt on the results, that that wasn’t based on statistics. That wasn’t based on data.
But the fact that they’ve stuck with that analysis despite it being pretty clear that this was a trend that we have seen in the past that wasn’t inexplicable – I think once you come on the record to say that, then you’ve seen every report since have to justify that. Because if the OAS admits that it was wrong or was lying, then it begins to look much more like an intentional effort to undermine an election.
This is the bottom line on how the OAS lied about the election in #Bolivia, in 80 seconds.
Such a simple point that it's amazing so many people can get it wrong. pic.twitter.com/UCyxL7wyNM
— Mark Weisbrot (@MarkWeisbrot) November 19, 2019
Bowman: I understand that you attended a meeting last week of the OAS permanent council and that you were denied an opportunity to speak about the audit report despite an invitation from the [Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador] government in Mexico. What happened there?
Johnston: Yeah, well, the Mexican delegation to the OAS had asked us to present a response to the OAS, which was going to be using the permanent council meeting to present the findings of its final audit.
That’s an established procedure. Delegations are allowed to invite outside actors to use their time. The OAS Permanent Council president and Secretary Almagro did not allow that to take place.
And so that’s what happened. What Mexico said is that this would be an area for open communication to be able to debate this. And I think that’s crucially important here because from day one, right from October 21, they haven’t actually answered questions from any journalists or journalists are not asking them questions around their process.
They’re only presenting their findings, but haven’t actually said who was part of this audit mission or made them available to answer questions. They certainly haven’t responded to members of Congress who sent a series of extensive questions around the methodology.
It’s just the lack of debate, this lack of willingness to even answer basic questions about methodology that really contributes to the greater amount of questions around what they’re actually saying they found.
Bowman: Lastly, following the ouster of Morales, right-wing Senator Jeanine Anez, whose party received only four percent of the vote, named herself interim president and has been in charge of the de facto government since. But despite the fact that she is unelected and is only serving in an interim capacity, her government has made some very significant policy changes already. How would you characterize her tenure to this point and what can we expect to see in Bolivia going forward?
Johnston: Yeah, I mean obviously it’s been a tremendously dire situation. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently issued a preliminary report on the two massacres and we’ve seen the death toll rise into the 30s since the electoral crisis began.
Getting back to the election, I think it’s really important is because I think it’s really important to look at the OAS, his role in the hemisphere and the OAS, its role in this crisis.
There is a new electoral process, and this is where it becomes really important. Can the OAS, which just undermined this electoral process and has played such a key role in the current environment – can it be trusted as a neutral actor to ensure free and fair elections under this government when there are so many indications that that could be extremely problematic?
The minister of government recently threatened that the entire Chipaya region, one of the bastions of support for Evo Morales and his MAS party, won’t even be able to participate in the elections because there’s been a conflict between the police force and local communities there.
So it’s these things that are extremely concerning about the potential for free and fair elections moving forward.