Cecilia Pou is a student at the University of Southern California and a former intern for the Council on Foreign Relations.
After assuming the interim presidency of Bolivia in November 2019, Jeanine Áñez vowed that her only objective was to hold presidential elections within ninety days. Nine months later, she has yet to fulfill that promise. Áñez’s administration has postponed the elections twice, citing the risks of voting in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Protests have exploded across Bolivia, as critics fear she will use the pandemic as an excuse to remain in power indefinitely or to advance her own candidacy in eventual elections. The situation highlights one of the most pressing threats the pandemic poses to countries worldwide: a threat to the credibility of their democratic institutions and processes.
Áñez took power as a result of the controversy surrounding Bolivia’s 2019 presidential elections, in which incumbent Evo Morales ran against Former President Carlos Mesa for an unprecedented fourth term, utilizing his political connections to gain approval from the constitutional court. Rumors of election fraud arose as results were released, and Morales won by a narrow margin. In response to public demonstrations, Morales agreed to an election audit by the Organization of American States. In a report [PDF] from the Organization of American States, the regional bloc highlighted irregularities and declared the election results fraudulent, a claim that has since been marred by controversy. Although Morales accepted the findings and called for new elections, public pressure from the military and the subsequent threat of violence pushed him and his top officials to resign. Áñez, as the second vice president of the Senate, was fifth in the line of succession. With all other successors out of the picture, Áñez declared herself interim president—a move which Morales and his supporters have since denounced as a military coup.
The Bolivian Constitution states that the interim president must hold elections within ninety days. The role is that of a caretaker, to hold the presidency solely until an elected leader can take over. Áñez, however, quickly began implementing changes to institutions, blatantly overstepping her interim role. She appointed a new conservative cabinet, revived public Catholic rituals, and reversed diplomatic relations with leftist governments in Venezuela and Cuba. A report [PDF] from the International Human Rights Clinic found that Áñez’s administration has stifled opposition by incarcerating individuals who speak out against her and has utilized law enforcement to brutally crack down on protestors. Though Áñez had previously stated she had no intention of running, in January 2020 she announced her presidential bid.
Despite gaining recognition from Bolivia’s Constitutional Tribunal, the head of the Bolivian military, and countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil, Áñez faces strong domestic opposition. Supporters of Morales have protested since her rise to power in November, denouncing her unelected rule as illegitimate. Áñez’s decision to push back the election twice has exacerbated tensions further, as protestors view the delays as politically motivated.
Based on July polls, Áñez is trailing in third place with 16% of the vote. Carlos Mesa is in second with 20% of the vote, and Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate Luis Arce—endorsed by Morales—is leading with 24% of the vote. Some of Morales’ supporters claim Áñez is trying to buy enough time to bolster support prior to the vote, while others believe that she has no intention of holding elections at all.
Áñez has defended her decision as necessary, pointing to Bolivia’s dire situation. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has surpassed 100,000. Hospitals are severely overwhelmed, with many turning away critically ill patients. Áñez herself contracted the virus in early July.
Recently, the Electoral Tribunal passed a law mandating that the presidential election be held on October 18, regardless of public health conditions. While this has temporarily calmed tensions, the situation remains precarious. Morales supporters remain skeptical that Áñez will comply with the ruling.
Bolivia is just one of at least seventy countries worldwide to make the decision to delay an electoral event due to the pandemic. In some instances, the public has viewed a postponement as a reasonable reaction to public health conditions. In New Zealand, for example, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that the general elections would be delayed faced little to no pushback, despite the country’s minimal number of cases. In other countries, opponents criticize a postponement as a masked power play. In Ethiopia, August elections were delayed, allowing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to stay in office indefinitely, a move the opposition has decried as unlawful. In Bolivia, where Áñez has stifled dissent by force, a delayed election is similarly viewed as an excuse to remain in power.
In the United States, President Donald J. Trump’s public suggestion to postpone the November elections, claiming mail-in voting would make the election fraudulent, drew sharp criticism. Postponement remains improbable, however, and critics deem Trump’s statements as a politically motivated ploy to undermine the election’s legitimacy in the event of a loss.
The coronavirus poses a multifaceted threat, one which stems far beyond public health. The delay of elections—and the subsequent controversy that results—has eroded citizen faith in the quality of democracy. In Bolivia, this simmering distrust is perhaps more deadly than the virus itself, capable of undermining the very ideals that the country is built on.