The Electoral System
The May 1989 elections marked the sixth time that Bolivians had gone to the polls since 1978. This proliferation of elections did not make up for the twelve-year electoral hiatus imposed on the country by successive military dictatorships. Following years of authoritarian rule, the Bolivian electorate faced elections without undergoing a process of institution-building and electoral practice. The result was a chaotic transition period that culminated in October 1982 with the election of Hernán Siles Zuazo (1982-85).
In 1978 the National Electoral Court annulled the first elections because of large-scale fraud; as a result, the military reintervened. The 1979 elections produced a congressionally mandated one-year interim government debilitated by military coups and countercoups. In 1980 a bloody military coup prevented Congress from assembling to elect a new president. In 1982 the Congress elected in 1980 was convoked to choose a president. Elections were held again in 1985, one year earlier than originally mandated by Congress. In May 1989, Bolivians cast their ballots for the third democratic and civilian president of the 1980s.
All Bolivian citizens at least twenty-one years of age, or eighteen if married, are guaranteed the right to vote through secret ballot in free and open elections. All voters must register with neighborhood electoral notaries established prior to an election. To register, voters must present a cédula de identidad (national identity card), a birth certificate, or a military service card. Because voting is considered a civic duty, failure to register or vote invokes several penalties. Only citizens over seventy may abstain voluntarily. Mental patients, traitors, convicts, and conscripted soldiers are ineligible to vote.
The electoral system comprises the National Electoral Court, electoral judges, electoral notaries, departmental electoral courts, and electoral juries. The most important of these bodies, the National Electoral Court, is an independent, autonomous, and impartial organization charged with conducting the electoral process. The court may recognize or deny inscription to political parties, fronts, or coalitions. Sixty days before elections, it approves a single multicolor ballot with symbols of parties or pictures of candidates running for office. The court also counts the ballots in public and investigates all charges of fraud. Once the electoral results have been certified by the National Electoral Court, it must provide credentials accrediting elected deputies and senators, as well as the president and vice president. The court must also present an annual report of its activities to Congress.
The National Electoral Court consists of six members elected by Congress, the Supreme Court of Justice, the president of the republic, and the political parties with the highest number of votes in the previous election. Members serve four years and are eligible for reelection.
Electoral judges are seated in the capitals of each department or province. They hear appeals by notaries regarding admission or exclusion of inscriptions in the registry, try electoral notaries and other persons for crimes committed during the electoral process, hear charges of fraud and other voting irregularities, and annul false electoral cards.
Electoral notaries must be present at every electoral station in the country. Their principal task is to organize and provide custody for the electoral registry. They are also empowered to register citizens to vote and to keep an accurate registry of voters.
The 1986 electoral law establishes ten departmental electoral courts, including one in each department capital and two in La Paz. Each court comprises six members, three of whom are named by Congress and three by the superior district courts, president of the republic, and political parties. The departmental electoral courts have the power to name all judges and notaries and to remove them if charges of corruption or inefficiency brought against them by parties are confirmed. They also are empowered to count ballots in public for the president, vice president, senators, and deputies. Each electoral jury is composed of five citizens who monitor voting at the polling place. They are chosen randomly from the lot of voters at each voting table; service is compulsory.
The Constitution establishes that only political parties that are duly registered with the National Electoral Court may present candidates for office. Although labor unions, entrepreneurial associations, and regional civic committees have a very large voice in policy making, by law they must work through political parties. The Constitution and the electoral law provide for a proportional representation system to ensure the representation of minority parties.
The proliferation of tiny parties, alliances, and electoral fronts in the late 1970s led to the enactment of Article 206 of the 1980 Electoral Law. This article states that parties, alliances, or coalitions that do not achieve 50,000 votes must repay to the national treasury the costs of printing the ballot. Repayment must be made three days after the final ballot has been counted; a jail term awaits party chiefs who fail to pay.
In 1986 amendments to the 1980 electoral law sought to establish further limits on the proliferation of parties by establishing restrictions for party registration. The specific objective of these reforms was to limit the access of minuscule parties to Congress in order to establish a viable two- to three-party system.
The most significant amendment to the electoral law governed registration requirements. Beginning in 1986, citizens had to present either a national identity card or a military service card to register to vote. Critics noted that this reform would legally exclude 60 percent of the peasantry that lacked either document. Indeed, fraud generally occurred in the countryside where the population lacked these documents. The law was amended in December 1988, however, to allow birth certificates as valid documents for registration. Universal suffrage was one of the principal gains of the 1952 Revolution; thus, attempts to restrict voting eligibility have been closely scrutinized.
Since elections returned to Bolivia in 1978, only two have been relatively honest. In 1978 the elections were annulled following massive fraud on the part of the military-sponsored candidate. The 1979 elections were much cleaner, but charges of fraud still surfaced. Most observers agreed that the 1980 elections were clean, but because of a military coup, the outcome was postponed until 1982. Owing to electoral reforms, the 1985 general elections were by far the fairest ever held in Bolivia. Nonetheless, because elections are inherently political, accusations of fraud are a permanent feature of the electoral system. Early in the campaign for the 1989 elections, charges of fraud were already being leveled against the ruling MNR.
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