Bolivia delays presidential election again over pandemic

Gideon Long reports for the Financial Times:

Move will probably leave unelected leader Jeanine Añez in power through to end of the year

Bolivia has not been as hard-hit by coronavirus as some of its neighbours, but cases have been climbing © Bloomberg

Bolivia has postponed its presidential election for a second time due to coronavirus, which will leave its unelected president Jeanine Añez in power through to the end of the year.

The vote was due to take place on September 6. But with Covid-19 cases still rising in what is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, the top electoral court set a new date of October 18, with a second round, if needed, on November 29. The new government would take office in December.

The court said that “there is a consensus that the [coronavirus] peak [in Bolivia] will come sometime between the end of July and the first days of September”.

The decision is good news for Ms Añez, who had argued that Bolivians should not go to the polls until the worst had passed, and a blow to her main rival, Luis Arce, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party that held power under longtime president Evo Morales until last year. He has accused Ms Añez of using the pandemic to cling to power.

“Political friction is going to rise significantly in the weeks ahead,” said Rodrigo Riaza of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“The MAS controls congress, which must legally approve the election date change, but the party has been pushing to hold elections as soon as possible,” he added. “The MAS is likely to eventually accept the election date change given the public health crisis, but they will make noise first.”

Bolivia, with a population of 11m, has not been as hard hit by coronavirus as its neighbours Brazil, Peru and Chile, but cases have been rising steadily. It has registered over 64,000 cases and 2,300 deaths, with the worst day for new cases coming last Saturday.

Ms Añez and several members of her cabinet have tested positive for the disease. The health system in some poorer areas of the country appears overwhelmed.

The interim president has been in office since late last year when Mr Morales quit amid electoral fraud allegations and fled the country.

It seemed she would be in the job for a matter of weeks — just long enough to organise fresh elections and oversee a transition. But after repeatedly saying she had no intention of running for the presidency, she did a U-turn in January and threw her hat into the ring.

The election was first scheduled for May but then pushed back due to the pandemic.

“Risks to political stability rise with every day that elections are delayed,” Mr Riaza said.

The last key poll before the pandemic suggested Ms Añez was third in voter intentions, behind Mr Arce and Carlos Mesa, a former president and the more centrist of the three candidates. Some polls since then have suggested Ms Añez had regained ground, but they have all been conducted online because of the lockdown.

Earlier this month, the Bolivian right moved to block Mr Arce’s participation in the election, saying he had breached electoral rules by publishing an opinion poll during the campaign period. The case is before a court.

https://www.ft.com/content/de1fbf40-87a3-4247-a569-c15a27beb68d

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