Election Day in Bolivia

December 18, 2005

Localwoman after voting in today´s presidential election in La Paz, Bolivia.I have mocked the political ads in Argentina. I have mocked the political ads in Chile. I will not do the same in Bolivia.

Having found myself in La Paz on election day, with an electorate substantially more divided than the US during it´s most recent pair of elections, I felt I should give the matter a serious look. It is my duty as a reporter … OK, I am not a reporter, but here I am reporting live on elections. Is everyone with a blog now a reporter? What has the world come to? …to write something thoughtful, or at least not glib.

I think a really quick (I promise) overview of the Bolivian Presidential race is in order because I am sure most of you are not familiar with the candidates or the issues, but if that sounds unbearably dull skip down to the section comparing the Bolivian election process to that of the United States (it is more fun than it sounds).

The Candidates and Issues

The Leading Candidate is Evo Morales, of MAS, Movement for Socialism party. He is an Aymara Indian from the countryside and built his reputation fighting for farmers against Coca eradication programs. He is widely supported by the poor, by the farmers and by residents of the countryside. He is expected to win the most votes, but not to get 51% of the votes.

The likely second place finisher is Tuto Quiroga of ADN. He is a businessman and was the former vice president under Hugo Banzer. Banzer had died in office and made Tuto president.

The likely third place finisher, the man to be courted if you want to build a coalition, is Samuel Doria Medina of MIR. He is a former government minister and a successful businessman with both a cement business and the Burger King Franchise for Bolivia.

There are five other candidates, none of whom matter much.

Since nobody is likely to win 51%, under Bolivian law the parliament will elect a president in early January. Evo is the socialist outsider and many fear that if he were elected president it would mean a disastrous end to US aid to Bolivia. The Evo supporters fear that backroom deals signed in the middle of the night will lead to “more of the same”. That is electing Tuto (or possibly Medina). If this happens, many fear protests (riots) by the farmers and campesinos who feel that Evo is the only one who cares about the poor and he will likely have won the most votes.

Either way it is not going to be pretty come early January.

Bolivian Elections versus the United States Elections

With the politics out of the way I have some observations on the profoundly different way in which elections are conducted in Bolivia versus the US.

In Bolivia, voting is mandatory. You need to show your proof of voting for almost any government permit or license. Some banks even require it in order to get a loan.

Bolivian Campesino showing off his purple pinky indicating that he has votedWhen you arrive at the poll they check your ID and then publicly display the ballot to indicate that it is “clean”, free of any marks. Then the voter takes the ballot into a private room and makes his mark. He refolds the ballot and drops it in sealed cardboard boxes in front of everyone. Then his pinky is dipped in indelible purple ink and he is given his certificate to prove he has voted.

Bolivian Presidential BallotThe ballots are huge, maybe 11 by 17 inches. They are full color, with the Candidate name, party, logo, photo and a check box filling a tall rectangle about 2 inches by 6 inches. You put an “X” in the very clearly marked box by the candidate. Perhaps we (Americans) could learn a thing or two.

There also seemed to be no political ads near the polling stations. In the US I always know when I am 150 feet from the poll because of the throng of lobbyists and exit pollsters. These were also missing at the 5 polling sites I visited.

Elections are held on a Sunday and it is illegal to “work”. There are handful of restaurants open, I saw a call center and I am writing this from a cybercafe but more than 95% of business are closed and the normally teeming streets are empty of all but a very few of the vendors that normally clog them almost to the point of preventing traffic.

You may not drive a car (or operate a taxi) without a special permit. These permits are only issued the day before to prevent forgeries and are only issued to members of the press and taxi´s that will serve the press. This means everybody is out walking or biking to the polls. The streets around my hotel which are normally chocked with traffic were empty.

All of this created a little hassle for your intrepid non-reporter, but I managed to cut a deal with a cab driver, I will call him “Jerry” to protect the guilty. He promised he would get a permit and chauffeur me for the day for $30.00. When we met outside the hotel at 7 AM (because I had a mountain to climb before I could report on the elections, but more about that in another post) he was there with his cousin, “Larry”. It seems that Jerry had other obligations, but Larry could take me. One tiny hitch. They had been up till 1 AM trying to get a permit and it had cost $20.00, because they had to buy it on the secondary market. As you can imagine, they wanted me to pay $40.00. As my political ambitions grew the total eventually reached $50.00. Nevertheless, I was able to visit several polling places and despite my driver´s fear, I was allowed to take pictures in the polling station once I asked Daisy Camargo, the Notaria for permission.

Daisy was kind enough to explain the whole voting and vote counting process to me and it seemed that the polling place she was running was very orderly and efficient. It was guarded by military police and there were several election observers present, though they seemed to be chatting amongst themselves.

Outside there were children, businessman and women in traditional dress all stopping to buy a napkin to mat the damp ink on their pinkies. Let´s hope that is all there is to the post election clean up.

More election day photos, including political ads, grafiti and polling places, as soon as I can manage a better connection.

For more information about the elections, try reading somebody who learned about the elections before last Wednesday: http://www.democracyctr.org/blog/

UPDATE: Evo has officially won! He managed just a hair over 50%. His supporters are very happy. He´ll take office Jan 6th. My limited survey of the locals suggests he´ll have a 6 month honeymoon. After that people will expect results. 6 months is not long and Evo will almost certainly have made enemies of foriegn investors by then by nationalizing the petro business.


  1. Evo Morales: Bolivia’s New President

    “Grandmother and Grandson After Voting” (Photo Copyright 2005 Jonathan Lieberman)
    It would seem that Bolivia has found itself a new president-elect in Evo Morales, the leftist candidate of MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party. For the…

    Trackback by Global Voices Online — December 20, 2005 @ 12:28 am

  2. Dear new age traveller,
    Hope your X’mas time fill with laughter… and a few treats to boot..

    Best wishes,


    Comment by Victor Aung — December 20, 2005 @ 3:53 am

  3. [...] Sadly, I don´t have time to write up our adventures here. Jonathan has done an incredible job getting into the pysche of the culture. Check out his posts here Filed under: Uncategorized — Soyan @ 6:49 pm [...]

    Pingback by Soyan Says… » Too little time in Bolivia! — December 20, 2005 @ 6:50 pm

  4. [...] In a way, this makes sense. Bolivia has a lively English-language blogging community that had been waiting anxiously for Sunday’s election for many months now. Even though they all have their day jobs and aren’t paid for their research into Bolivia as reporters are, their focus is much narrower and therefore more competent and nuanced. A reporter like Juan Forero of the New York Times and International Herald Tribune, meanwhile, is constantly traveling all over South America reporting a little on this and a little on that. During a period of so many South American elections, he can’t afford to focus all his attention on just one like Miguel Buitrago and Jim Schultz did. Nor can he document in such detail the difference between Bolivian and U.S. voting procedures like Jonathan Lieberman did. [...]

    Pingback by El Oso, El Moreno, and El Abogado » Blog Archive » Perdido en el Siglo … Mundial, Part II — December 22, 2005 @ 3:44 pm

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