December 06, 2017

Bolivia Elects New Justices of Higher Courts

On December 3, 2017, amidst a controversial decision by the country’s constitutional court that in the end allows president Morales to run for office for an unprecedented fourth consecutive time, Bolivians headed to the ballot boxes to elect justices for the higher courts of the judicial branch. The election results seem to have been significantly affected by the court’s decision. The null and blank votes reached 50 percent while the valid votes reached only a third of the total. These results, according to general interpretation, reflect an overwhelming rejection of the court’s decision and of Morales’ intentions to run for office once again.

Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution prescribes four institutions comprising the country’s judicial system. The constitution court is in charge of constitutional questions; the supreme court is there to address important legal cases; the council of magistrates is supposed to address administrative and disciplinary issues; and finally, the agro-environmental court addresses agricultural-environmental issues. All three courts and the council are headed by a board of justices, with different compositions. All these justices have been up for election this time around.

The results of Sunday’s elections show an out of the ordinary outcome at the national level in favor of the null and blank votes, i.e. over fifty percent, while valid votes make up about a third.
For the Agro-environmental court the null and blank votes are 52 and 14 percent respectively. In similar terms, 52 and 16 percent of voters chose to vote null and blank, respectively, when it came to the Council of Magistrates. These two sets of numbers came out after 97 percent of precincts were counted. Alternatively, the results for the supreme and constitutional courts are reported by department. In that manner, the average of null and blank votes on the nine departments is 48 and 17 percent respectively at the national level. The average of precincts counted is almost 99 percent.
The results highlighted here are preliminary and come directly from the electoral agency’s website at www.oep.org.bo where you can access them differentiated by institution and geography. At the same time, it is worth highlighting that the level of participation was an elevated 70 to 80 percent, depending on the department.

The government and the various oppositional groups have already offered their own interpretations of the results. The government interprets the judicial elections and its results as having achieved the intended purpose. First, the elections happened in an orderly and (to the publication of this article) clean manner. Second, justices for the four institutions were elected. The vice president argued any result with any number of votes would be more democratic compared to the previous appointment system. Third, the judicial system in Bolivia is better because the justices are elected by the population and not by congress. Finally, Bolivia is at the forefront in the world because it elects its high justices.

Meanwhile, opposition groups interpret the results mainly as an overwhelming rejection, first, to the constitutional court’s decision which in the end will allow Morales to run again for office and to Morales’ intention to run again. In addition, many groups are upset that because of these decisions (by the constitutional court and Mr. Morales’), the results of the past referendum held on February 21, 2016, when the no vote won with 52% against a government proposal to reform the 2009 constitution to allow re-election, are not being taking into account. In fact, many groups say this result is being ignored.

As a result, many groups have turned out into the streets to express their rejection and their unhappiness with the government’s actions. Many protests in major cities have been repressed by police and there have been some arrests and injuries of protesters. In Santa Cruz, there is a call to stage a general strike, halting business and day to day life. In Tarija, a group of students has entered into a hunger strike aiming at forcing the government, as they say, respect the country’s decisions. The government is also organizing gatherings in La Paz, to demonstrate support for its actions.
I expect these demonstrations to continue for at least some several weeks. Demonstrators seems resolute to resist the government’s actions. The political opposition is preparing several legal actions which involve submitting legal recourses to the constitutional court as well as appealing to international courts such as the inter-american human rights court.