SNAPSHOT: Bolivia’s disputed election elevates travel and security risks for corporates
Protesters in Sucre rally
against suspected electoral fraud
On 24 October, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced that incumbent President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous head of state and leader since 2006, had been re-elected in 20 October’s presidential election. Morales had managed to narrowly avoid a run-off against centrist candidate and ex-president Carlos Mesa, despite initial results, which were abruptly interrupted, showing the two candidates progressing to a run-off poll.
The TSE’s announcement, which followed four days of confusion and suspicion over the electoral authorities’ disorderly management of the vote count, immediately sparked allegations of electoral fraud from Mesa’s supporters. This quickly triggered an escalation of demonstrations in major cities across the country, including in the de facto capital La Paz and eastern industrial city of Santa Cruz, which had begun on 22 October amid delays in the release of the results.
In cities in the past week, protests, roadblocks, strikes and associated violent confrontations have taken place almost daily. Yesterday (30 October), two people were shot dead in clashes between the supporters and opponents of Morales in the city of Montero, Santa Cruz department. On 28 and 29 October, opposition-aligned unions staged a strike in La Paz, blocking roads and engaging in violent confrontations with Morales’ supporters, prompting security forces to deploy tear gas. Disruptive strikes have also been staged in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba.
While Morales insists that he is the rightful victor, he has allowed the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct an independent audit of the vote count amid criticism of the electoral process from the US, EU, and multiple Latin American countries. The audit begins today (31 October), and is scheduled to last between 10 and 12 days.
Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, has led the country since 2006
The dispute over the election results is likely to persist in the two-week outlook. Mesa has refused to accept the results of OAS’s audit under the terms it agreed unilaterally with Morales’ ruling MAS party, and has called for an increased involvement of civil society organisations. While protests are unlikely to escalate further during the audit, there is a high likelihood of additional violent confrontations once the results are announced.
The audit is highly likely to find multiple irregularities in the electoral process. Although the government has said its findings will be ‘binding’, there is a high likelihood that it would seek to discredit the OAS and its audit if it recommends that the election should progress to a second-round. Conversely, supporters of Mesa are unlikely to accept any finding supporting the TSE’s judgement that Morales was the rightful victor, given their discomfort over the audit being unilaterally agreed with MAS.
The dispute over the election results is therefore unlikely to end with the OAS audit’s findings. Neither supporters nor opponents of Morales have shown a willingness to backtrack on their positions, and any negotiated settlement which does not result in fresh elections will be insufficient for Mesa’s supporters. Morales, however, has reiterated that he is the winner of the election, and that attempts to oust him are tantamount to a ‘coup’.
More broadly, the dispute comes amid a period of acute political upheaval throughout Latin America. While major recent protests in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela have disparate origins, many participants share common concerns, including over vast income inequality and lack of formal employment opportunities, longstanding social injustices, a lack of trust in the existing political process and institutions to resolve these grievances.
Leading opposition candidate Carlos Mesa says he will not accept the results of the OAS's audit
Security managers at organisations with staff and facilities in Bolivia should immediately review security measures to ensure these are commensurate to the heightened threat environment, which is likely to persist in at least the two week-outlook. There is a high likelihood of protests, violent confrontations, and roadblocks in major urban centres, particularly La Paz and Santa Cruz. Staff and facilities at city centre locations are most vulnerable.
Postpone non-essential inbound journeys to the country in the two-week outlook. Staff in-country should remain in place. Evaluate remote working options for in-country employees.
Disruption to multiple transport options is likely in at least the two-week outlook. Factor disruption to supply chains, including roadblocks on highways, into short-term operational planning. Instruct drivers not to attempt to pass roadblocks, as this may elicit a violent response from those protesting.
Where travel is required, ensure this is conducted under strict journey management protocols with trained and vetted drivers.