Deadly pandemic and postponed elections: Bolivia's explosive cocktail

La Paz (AFP) –


Ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, Bolivia is bracing for a potential escalation in civil unrest as former president Evo Morales's supporters take to the streets following a new postponement of presidential elections.

Last week Bolivia delayed its vote for a second time because of the coronavirus pandemic, putting polls off until October 18.

On Tuesday around 5,000 Morales supporters, mainly miners and indigenous people, took to the streets of the sprawling city of El Alto, adjacent to La Paz, to protest the postponement, many waving the flags of the Aymara and Quechua peoples.

Other demonstrations took place in the central city of Cochabamba and Cobija in the north of the country.

Morales -- Bolivia's first indigenous president -- was in power from 2006 to 2019 when he was forced to resign after a controversial re-election to an unconstitutional fourth term, a vote in which an Organization of American States audit found clear evidence of election fraud.

He now lives in exile in Argentina but nonetheless never misses a chance to stir up his supporters via inflammatory social media posts.

And while Morales himself may have left power, his MAS party still controls parliament.

"I think he will continue to play an important role in the sense that he remains a polarizing political factor in the country," sociologist Maria Teresa Zegada told AFP.

Conservative former senator Jeanine Anez became acting president in November with a simple mandate to guide the country through to new elections, which were initially set for May, and then postponed to September before the latest deferral.

Demonstrators this week have expressed their anger with Anez's government, blaming it for the postponement.

Unlike the previous delay, neither the parliament nor the main political parties were consulted by election authorities this time.

Constitutional expert Ivan Lima said the election postponement has provoked a "confrontation between the state organs and a constitutional crisis."

- Social 'convulsions' -

"The September 6 election date must be respected," Lucio Padilla, a miner leader, said on Tuesday in El Alto. "We cannot allow the law to be manipulated, we must defend democracy."

Morales regularly berates what he calls the "putschist right-wing" interim government and on Wednesday he repeated his accusation that the electoral court had "illegally" postponed the vote.

Morales's supporters claim the election is only being delayed because his MAS party candidate Luis Arce is leading in the polls.

They have warned of social "convulsions" if the September 6 date is not maintained.

The demonstrations show that MAS is still able to mobilize supporters despite the difficulties and fear caused by the pandemic.

Political scientist Marcelo Silva warned that the situation could escalate, although he believes "it will depend on the pandemic" and how it develops.

- September virus peak -

Paranoia abounds: Conservative and right-wing players are worried about MAS's potential return to power while the Morales camp suspects the interim administration is trying to prevent Arce from taking part in the poll. Morales himself has been barred from standing in the election, even as a legislator.

Bolivia has recorded more than 73,000 cases and over 2,800 deaths from COVID-19 among its population of 11 million.

Anez and eight ministers have tested positive for coronavirus, while a former minister in the Morales government, Eugenio Rojas, died of COVID-19 on Thursday at the age of 57.

Experts say the virus won't reach its peak until the end of August or early September -- meaning holding an election on September 6 would be highly risky.

Not a day goes by without television stations showing images of police gathering dead bodies from the streets, homes or even cars.

Between July 15-20 officers collected more than 400 bodies throughout Bolivia, 85 percent of whom had died of COVID-19, national police director Ivan Rojas announced.

Hospitals and morgues have been overwhelmed. In the southwest city of Oruro, scores of corpses were buried in a communal grave due to a lack of space in cemeteries, local authorities said on Wednesday. A similar scene unfolded in Sucre in the south.

Like many countries the world over, Bolivia's economy has been devastated by the virus.

Once one of the most dynamic economies in the region, Bolivia's GDP will fall by 5.9 percent in 2020, according to World Bank projections.