A bright example for the US – from the Andes

A year after a raucous, fraud-ridden election, Bolivia held a clean vote that surprised observers and could lead to a unity government.

A member of Bolivia's Electoral Tribunal works on the vote count after the Oct. 18 election.

Wouldn’t much of the world, not to mention Americans, be delighted if these statements were voiced after the Nov. 3 presidential election in the United States:

The people have “rejected the ominous predictions of confrontation and violence.”

“People voted in freedom and the result was clear and forceful, giving great legitimacy to the incoming government.”

“Citizens reaffirmed their support for democracy in a calm and respectful atmosphere, ... paving the way back to the constitutional framework.”

Actually, the three different comments were made after an election in Bolivia on Oct. 18 by, respectively, the head of the country’s electoral authority and two foreign observer groups, the Organization of American States and the Carter Center. The European Union also commended Bolivia for holding a clean and transparent election.

What makes the statements stand out – especially in a world leaning authoritarian and coping with the coronavirus – is that they mark the surprise recovery of Bolivia’s democracy. A year ago, a longtime and increasingly autocratic ruler, President Evo Morales, was forced to flee the country after a very controversial election in which ballot counting was inexplicably frozen for 24 hours until he was declared the winner.

Under an interim government, Bolivia has since reformed its electoral authority in a bipartisan way, cleaned up its voting procedures, and conducted a voter education campaign. With renewed faith in the system, voters turned out in record participation despite high rates of COVID-19. The underdog in the race, former President Carlos Mesa, said beforehand that he would accepts the results. The winner, Luis Arce, a former finance minister under Mr. Morales, vowed to form a government of national unity after taking office Nov. 8.

Democracy in Bolivia is now more institutionalized and less driven by personal rule. “This affirms how people want to live in peace and with institutions that fulfill their mission,” said Salvador Romero, the head of the electoral authority.

Bolivian politics remains highly polarized, divided by race and income, much like the U.S. Yet voters in Bolivia turned out calmly to restore elections and try to heal those divides. Citizens who treat each other equally at the ballot box can more easily address inequalities in society. That message, even from a small country in the Andes, is a timely one for struggling democracies, starting with the U.S.

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