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OAS plays significant role for democracy in elections

There are intermittent squabbles in the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States (OAS), concerning the controversial general elections of October 20, 2019 in Bolivia.

The President, Evo Morales, resigned after these elections amid a storm of protests, by groups within the country, charging that they were not free and fair.

The conclusion that the election process was improper and not credible came from electoral observer missions of the European Union (EU) and the OAS, whose presence was requested by the Morales government.

However, in the post-elections period, and a subsequent audit of the result conducted by the OAS – again at the request of the Morales government – allegations have been made that somehow the process was a coup d’état orchestrated by Luis Almagro, the OAS Secretary-General.

Twice, so far, in the Organisation’s Permanent Council, representatives of the MAS government, which was returned to power in October 2020, in elections also observed by the OAS, have repeated suggestions that irregularities in the October 20, 2019 elections, which were pointed out by the OAS electoral observation mission, are wrong. No mention is made of the findings of the EU observation mission which came to the same conclusions as the OAS mission.

The latest rumpus in the Permanent Council occurred on September 7 under an agenda item that had nothing to do with Bolivia. The Council was receiving a report on municipal elections in Paraguay, when the Bolivian Ambassador raised his governing party’s grievance over the OAS electoral mission’s report of the 2019 elections.

Secretary General Almagro, displaying frustration with the allegations against the OAS, its Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation, and himself, responded with some agitation to point out that the OAS Secretariat rejected them totally.

All this had led to this commentary in order to explain the process of electoral observation and the purpose of the missions that conduct them.

To begin with, no elections observation mission can take place without an invitation from the Government. In 2019, the Morales government invited both the EU and the OAS to observe the elections.

Notwithstanding the singling out of the OAS, both organisations reached the same conclusion.

The EU said in a statement that partial preliminary results on the night of the election with 83.8 per cent of votes counted, “the gap between Morales and Mesa was 7.87 per cent” and “If the results had continued to follow this pattern there would have been a second round, but an order was given “to stop processing the preliminary results right after this announcement”. The EU went on to say that on October 21, the process suddenly re-started and within minutes Morales´ lead was over 10 per cent, meaning no second round would be needed”.

The EU concluded that the decision to interrupt the count “generated great concern among interlocutors, who feared that the government intervened to stop the process, in order to manipulate the results. Other suspicious incidents came to light, such as hundreds of boxes of electoral materials being found in a house in Potosí.

The EU election expert mission (EEM) believes that the TSE´s decisions, combined with their failure to provide explanations for them, irrevocably damaged trust in the results process”. Despite the clear statement by the EU, no representation is made that the EU was wrong or has an ulterior motive; such representations have been reserved for, and focussed on the OAS and particularly the Secretary General.

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However, it was the Morales government, in the face of the statements by international observers of “damaged trust” in the elections result that invited the OAS to conduct an audit of the result. The OAS did not offer to do so, or to invite itself. Further, the Morales government confirmed, in a signed agreement with the OAS Secretariat, that “the audit findings would be binding”.

The electoral observation mission was headed by the former Costa Rican Foreign Minister, Manuel González (who, incidentally, also led the observation mission to the 2020 elections at which the MAS Presidential candidate, Luis Arce, was declared the winner) and the four audit teams comprised independent technical experts from various countries including Argentina, Mexico and Spain.

None of these teams were subject to any direction by the OAS Permanent Council, the Secretary General or the Secretariat.

On November 10, 2019, stating significant IT security vulnerabilities that could have been used to manipulate the results and pointing out the findings of international observers of a sudden change in the trend of the vote, the preliminary audit report recommended a new electoral process with a new electoral authority. On the same day, Morales resigned, and his government collapsed.

In the aftermath of this electoral commotion, an interim government assumed office, failing twice to hold the new elections that were mandated. During the course of a brief and arrogant period in office, the interim government presided over human rights violations, particularly against indigenous people – the main supporters of MAS.

The powerful OAS member governments at the time did not once protest the behaviour of the interim government, or its failure to hold scheduled elections. It took a group of CARICOM countries to advance a resolution, drafted by Belize and Antigua and Barbuda, to insist on protections for indigenous people.

The point is that the Secretaries General or Chief Executive Officers of regional organisations, such as the EU, the Commonwealth and the OAS, organise electoral observer missions at the request of governments; independent persons of high reputation – usually a former head of government or foreign minister – lead the mission with no interference from Secretariats or Secretaries General in the conduct of their work.

The OAS secretariat did not manufacture the flaws in the 2019 Bolivian elections any more than did the EU.

No ruling political party that is criticised for a flawed electoral process welcomes such criticism, but their unhappiness does not negate the flaws or the lack of fairness in an elections process. Democracy is served by such criticism. As, incidentally, it was served in Guyana in 2020 where, were it not for the vigilance of the electoral observer missions from CARICOM, the EU, the OAS and the Commonwealth, the party in power at the time would have snatched the election.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto