Bolivia to hold elections tomorrow

2009 has been a very different year for Bolivia than 2008, marked more by elections than by the intense street confrontations of late last year. The new Bolivian Constitution was sent to the polls in January 2009 after the referendum was approved under the influence of a march of more than 100,000 people to surround the Bolivian parliament in late 2008.

Now, eleven months later, general elections are being held tomorrow to elect the president, parliament and departmental governors. The MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) ticket of Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera is polling well ahead, and is expected to receive a majority of votes. Their closest rival, led by recalled Cochabamba governor Manfred Reyes Villa, is polling around 24%.

The poll will be marked by two innovations: a “biometric” (fingerprints, signature, photo) identification system, demanded by the opposition to prevent alleged voter fraud; and the participants of Bolivians outside the country’s borders, including the United States. The biometric system raised a lot of questions, starting with: could it be implemented for the entire population? Six months ago, at the Bolivian Studies Association in Sucre, I heard several talks about the many rural residents who lack a formal identification card, and the costs (and occasional benefits) of being invisible to the state, such as inelegibility for formal land ownership and government service. Four months later, after a 76-day registration marathon (in which everyone had to re-register to the new standards), the largest electorate ever (es) was certified with 4,997,172 voters.

International monitors (such as those from Carter Center) are following closely, and it will be “the most heavily monitored election” in Bolivian history. Despite some recent street confrontations, the Organization of American States’ head obsever expects the elections to be “calm, peaceful, and transparent” (es).

Looking forward to next year, and my long trip to Bolivia, I’m keeping a close watch on tomorrow’s elections, comparing this year to last year, and imagining the consequences for the year to come. I’ll keep you posted.

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