EspañolJust over a week before local elections in Bolivia on March 29, the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) cancelled the juridical status of the opposition Democrat Unity Coalition (UD) in Beni department late on Thursday. The move bars 228 candidates from running for office, including the favorite for governor, Ernesto Suárez.
Moments after the resolution became known, Suárez complained that Bolivia’s president had influenced the ruling. “Was this decision taken by the court in full or by Evo Morales?” the UD leader asked.
“Why did Evo Morales announce that our legal status was already suspended last night, almost 24 hours before the TSE?” he added.
Suárez described the court’s decision as a “cowardly act,” saying that “democracy depends” on people’s ability to vote freely.
The former governor of the northeastern region said that Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) “will never win” in Beni, describing it as a traditional bastion of the opposition.
“Today the government assaults our democracy once more. We will remain firm. My people should remain calm, because MAS will never win Beni,” a defiant Suárez told press.
The UD was reported to the TSE for having published the results of a survey it carried out without due authorization.
According to Bolivia’s electoral rules, political organizations are prohibited from publishing “opinion polls on electoral issues.” Violations can lead to the “immediate cancellation of its legal personality” as well as economic sanctions.
The complaint was first presented by Vanesa Tirina, a member of the Autonomous Nationalities for Change and Empowerment (NACER) grouping and a candidate for councilor in the local city of Riberalta. Tirina alleged that UD campaign chief and current Beni Governor Carmelo Lens had infringed the electoral law by revealing the results of a survey in a press conference.
On Monday, March 16, the TSE declared that an infraction had taken place, issued the UD a fine of 8,500 Bol. (approximately US$1,400), and indicated that it would deliver a ruling on the UD’s legal status on Friday.
While waiting for the court’s resolution, Suárez began a public hunger strike on Tuesday in the square outside the TSE in La Paz. He also began to collect signatures to demonstrate the support of the administrative capital’s community.
Rule of Law under Threat
Prior to the TSE’s ruling, UD Senator Oscar Ortiz told the PanAm Post that the risk of his party losing its legal status in Beni was because “the rule of law already no longer exists” in Bolivia.
“A campaign chief commenting on the results of his own survey doesn’t mean that, in the sense set down by the law, he’s disseminated them in a serious way to media outlets,” Ortiz said.
TSE President Wilma Velasco meanwhile backed the court’s unanimous decision, saying it was based in the national Constitution and Bolivia’s electoral rules, and denying any intervention by the national government.
“This court receives no pressure of any kind; the only pressure comes from the law and the Constitution,” she said.
Velasco added that the ballots would remain unchanged, but votes won by the UD would be counted for statistical purposes only.
A similar complaint presented by a UD congressman earlier in March claiming that MAS had commented on electoral surveys was rejected by La Paz District Court President Marcelo Valdez, citing insufficient evidence.
For Senator Ortiz, the dismissal of the claim against MAS shows that “the law isn’t applied to everyone.”
“This is part of a crude strategy by MAS to win the elections, taking out the candidates that they haven’t been able to beat for all these years. In Beni, the government has never been able to win an election. Ernesto Suárez has every possibility of winning this election,” Ortiz argued.
Bolivians are to take to the polls on March 29 to elect governors for the country’s nine departments, and mayors for its 339 municipalities. Voters will also designate legislators for local government and municipal councilors.
According to opinion polls prior to the TSE’s decision, the government was due to win in five of Beni’s eight districts, with the other three going to a second round scheduled for May 3. Over 20 percent were undecided as to how to vote.
Alongside Suárez, the principal losers from the UD’s loss of official status include Moisés Shirqui, a contender for the mayoralty of the departmental capital Trinidad, who was polling neck and neck with MAS candidate Rolf Kohler.
Suárez said on Thursday he would request that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACH) take measures to reverse the ruling by the Bolivian authorities. He also called on his supporters to mark their ballots for the UD regardless to “show why they removed us” from the local race.
Adam Dubove and Rebeca Morla contributed to this article.