“Defenders of Democracy” Aren’t Bothered by Its End in Bolivia

A new study is the latest to undermine widespread claims of electoral fraud by Bolivia’s Evo Morales. It isn’t the first such debunking — yet democracy remains betrayed in Bolivia, and “pro-democracy” voices don’t seem too bothered.

Interim president of Bolivia Jeanine Áñez talks during a conference at the presidential palace on November 13, 2019 in La Paz, Bolivia. Javier Mamani / Getty Images

Mistakes happen. Sometimes you get a number wrong on a government form and are forced through rounds of emails and phone calls to fix the mistake; sometimes you uncritically trumpet false charges of electoral fraud and end up supporting a right-wing coup. We’re all human.

The latest whoopsie-daisy comes care of the New York Times, which recently reported on a new study debunking the central plank of the charges of electoral fraud lobbed at ousted Bolivian president Evo Morales in last year’s election. To recap, in last year’s election, the long-serving Morales looked like he might be forced into a perilous run-off as results trickled in, only at the last minute to jump ahead of the ten-point threshold needed to avoid one. It was this sudden leap that was deemed “inexplicable” by the Organization of American States (OAS), and was widely heralded as evidence Morales had stolen the election.

The new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University, finds the precise opposite: that not only was Morales’s sudden change in electoral fortunes entirely explicable, but was in line with trends in earlier elections in Brazil, Colombia, and even Bolivia itself, which the OAS had signed off on. In fact, it also matches up with something American liberals are far more familiar with: US elections and the Democratic vote.

“Researchers understand why late-counted votes disproportionately favor the Democrats in the United States: young and nonwhite voters are more likely to cast mail-in and provisional ballots, which are more likely to be counted after election day,” the authors write. “While politicians and pundits often point to the blue shift as evidence of fraud, scholars find that it is predictable. In Bolivia, too, compositional changes likely explain the shift in late-counted votes.”

The study may be new, but the conclusions aren’t. Researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research had similarly argued at the time that Morales’s eleventh-hour vote surge was wholly predictable given that later-reporting areas had tended to favor him in previous elections. Likewise, in February of this year, two MIT researchers also disputed the OAS’ claim that Morales’ late-game fortune was a statistical irregularity.

You would think, given the worldwide official consternation at the prospect of a fourth Morales term allegedly secured through elections shenanigans, this would be big news. At the time, outlets including but not limited to the Times, the Washington Post, BBC, Financial Times, NPR, and the Associated Press all heavily suggested Morales — a “strongman,” as the Times briefly labelled him in a political Freudian slip — had overturned democracy. All pointed to Morales’s nick-of-time vote boost, cited the OAS’ statement, as well as an expression of alarm by the European Union. Some didn’t even bother to imply.

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that Evo is brazenly trying to steal the election to avoid a runoff that he might well lose,” the Post quoted from the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank funded by virtually every malign corporate interest under the sun, as well as USAID, a “democracy promotion” instrument of the US government with a history of sometimes violent meddling in foreign countries, which Morales expelled from Bolivia in 2013.

“To new age leftists like Morales, elections are like buses: they ride them until they get where they want to go, and they get off,” wrote the right-wing American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega, outright accusing Morales of “stealing” the election.

With media and other international pressure lending legitimacy to the right-wing revolt against his government, Morales actually pledged a do-over of the election. Instead, the military told him to leave and Morales fled the country before armed intruders invaded his house.

A “Democratic” Military Coup

The Times has at least done the responsible thing and covered this latest study. But outside of the Gray Lady and the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, it appears to have been completely ignored by English-speaking media. Strange, given that we now have multiple studies telling us it was the right-wing Bolivian government in power right now, not Morales, that overturned Bolivian democracy.

It’s even stranger when you consider that the not-so-“interim” government headed by the unelected, far-right Jeanine Añez has embarked on precisely the kind of “authoritarian” and “arbitrary rule” that supposed defenders of liberal democracy like Yascha Mounk baselessly accused Morales of pursuing when they wanted him out. Since taking power, the Añez government has massacred protesters, arrested political opponents, and cracked down on the press and activists. In March, her government postponed an election she was on track to lose, the holding of which, as soon as possible, was supposed to be her only job, and in which she had initially promised not to run.

Morales was accused of authoritarianism, even of staging a “coup,” simply for going through the process to change the law and dispense with term limits, which, for better or worse, don’t exist in countless democracies. Term limits weren’t even in place in the United States until 1947, and numerous US political figures have suggested in the past they should be overturned, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Yet when a far-right government starts violently clamping down on journalists and its political opposition and actually suspends an election, many of these pro-democracy voices don’t utter a peep. The silence of the OAS, headed by a right-wing chameleon, is hardly a surprise. But where is the European Union, the last bastion of liberal democracy, as we are always told?

One instructive case study came during last year’s UK general election, unfolding at the same time as Morales’s ouster. When then–Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced what he accurately described as a coup, the diplomatic editor of the Guardian, not averse to being caught up in anti-populism panic itself, expressed alarm at his “startling” position, pointing to — what else? — the OAS. “Democracy is still working in Bolivia, just,” insisted its sister paper not long after. Just a day before those words were printed, Añez’s government mowed down pro-Morales protesters.

In the situation that continues to unfold in Bolivia, we see the fruits of the last few years of anti-populist rhetoric from the liberal-center, popularized by figures like Mounk. They claim to want to protect democracy and civil liberties from “populists” — the shapeless rubric under which they place everything from the far-right Trump and Viktor Orbán to the left-wing Podemos and Morales. And many of those repeating these claims no doubt genuinely believe this framework, duped by a clever messaging.

But for others, what they really oppose is a challenge to the prevailing arrangement of global wealth and power that seeks to move the world in the direction of justice and fairness. If democracy and civil liberties are casualties in that effort, as has been the case in Bolivia, so be it.

It’s why public opinion survey results show that it’s centrists, not right-or left-wing “extremists,” who are most hostile to democracy. If there’s a group that, to paraphrase Noriega, jumps on something only as long as it continues to serve its true objectives, it’s the anti-populist center and the liberal democracy it claims to stand for.