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As campaigning begins to repeat the Oct. 20 election that ended in a coup against former President Evo Morales, it remains far from certain whether this new election, under right-wing President Jeanine Añez, will be free and fair.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Gregg Wolpert: It’s the Real News Network and I’m Gregg Wolpert in Arlington, Virginia. Eleven political parties and presidential candidates launched their campaigns this week for the May 3rd general election. This upcoming election is meant to make up for the October 20th election of last year, which Bolivia’s parliament canceled following the November 10th coup against leftist president Evo Morales. Morales remains in exile in Argentina and is now running for a seat in Bolivia’s senate instead of for the presidency. His Designated successor, under the banner of the Movement Towards Socialism Party, is Luis Arce, Bolivia’s long-time minister of finance under Morales. His running mate is Morales’ former foreign minister and indigenous leader, David Choquehuanca. Here’s Luis Arce speaking last Saturday during the campaign launch rally in La Paz.

Luis Arce: Today, we face a historic challenge. For me to be able to meet this challenge, we aren’t just contesting an election. We are contesting more. We are an important geopolitical reference point for the region. The empire wants to set a signal with us. It wants to bring the Bolivian people to their knees.

Gregg Wolpert: Arce’s main opponent is the incoming president Janine Agnes, who took the country on a sharp turn towards the right when she took over the presidency following the coup against Evo Morales. Bolivia’s right is internally quite divided, however, which could give Arce an opportunity to win the election if it is a fair election. Joining me now to discuss the latest developments in Bolivia is Kathryn Ledebur. She is the director of the Andean information Network and a researcher, activist and analyst with over two decades of experience in Bolivia. Thanks for joining us again, Kathryn.

Kathryn Ledebur: Thanks so much for having me, Gregg.

Gregg Wolpert: Let’s start with the campaign. Evo Morales’ MAS party with the candidates Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca running for president and vice-president held a massive campaign rally also on Sunday in the town of Cochabamba. What can you tell us about these campaign rallies and their significance?

Kathryn Ledebur: I think they’re very insignificant because it really shows that grassroots support for MAS. There was a lot of criticism or suggestion on the part of the right that large attendance at MAS rallies was due to public employees that were forced to attend when MAS was in government. We see, for example, the rally outside Cochabamba and Sacaba, huge attendance and taking into account that the Agnes government has changed even the people who mopped the floors in all different government offices. It really clearly shows there’s a lot of grassroots support for MAS, there’s a lot of support, there’s a lot of concern at the same time, about this very far right turn, this erratic behavior, this repressive behavior on the part of the Agnes government on all levels of public administration and attacks against MAS. It’s a swing and a momentum that the coup had, we can see is deteriorating and people are beginning to become very uncomfortable, for the most part, with the behavior of this government.
Also very uncomfortable because Agnes had promised, remember she has no constitutional right to be president of Bolivia, but she had promised to come in as an interim president and call elections and she has now announced her own candidacy. I think it’s important for everyone to remember that Bolivia had an interim government, the government of Eduardo Rodriguez, they’ll say who just called elections, didn’t carry out repression, didn’t carry out any policy changes. We have a successful model in Bolivia in 2005 for that and it’s very clear that what Agnes and her crew are doing is very worrisome and very different.

Gregg Wolpert: Yeah. I want to dig a little bit deeper on that issue, but just to add a little bit more to the background, after the October 20th election that Evo Morales led with a 10.5% advantage over his nearest rival, Carlos Mesa, it was ultimately canceled because the opposition claimed fraud. Now, the organization of American States supported the fraud claim and the military and police called on Morales to resign, which he did on November 10th. And since then, there have been many reports and what you’ve been talking about, how the Agnes government cracked down on Morales and his supporters and here she’s reversing all of his policies even though, as you said, it’s supposed to be a caretaker government. Now, what’s the mood like in Bolivia in general? Are MAS supporters and candidates actually free to campaign?

Kathryn Ledebur: That remains to be seen. I think it’s pretty important to highlight that Arce returned to the country to begin his campaign and he was given a legal citation with potential charges at the airport. He had a hearing the next day where it was clear that the detention or the charges and the citation were illegal at that point in time. A MAS congressperson had her phone confiscated, it’s not clear what are happening with the charges in that case, Morales’ personal secretary and other officials have been arrested for sedition with no evidence of sedition, terrorism. The arbitrary detentions that block the registry of candidates, all sorts of pressure and supervision and very abrasive discourse is on the part of Agnes’ officials, it’s not clear how it’s going to play out and how freely MAS candidates will be able to run their campaigns. The international community asked for free and fair elections and those conditions right now, I would say, are iffy at best.

Gregg Wolpert: I just want to turn to a brief look at the candidates. What do the two main candidates, Luis Arce of MAS and right-wing president Janine Agnes stand for and how much popularity does each enjoy at the moment according to the most recent polls?

Kathryn Ledebur: I think that it’s important to note that Agnes’ initial popularity with some of the middle classes and the upper middle classes has deteriorated as it has become clear that her aspirations are far beyond an interim presidency as there have been clear denunciations of corruption, relatives in the government, irregular activities and as her government has carried out a very repressive discourse, has been stimulating arbitrary detentions, it does not seem to have a good understanding of basic human rights or due process norms nor do they respect the criteria of international human rights monitor and they have consistently attacked Bolivian human rights defenders.
I would say that her credibility, which in my opinion, was always extremely limited, has eroded significantly and she also faces criticism from the wide array of candidates on the right. Luis Arce, on the other hand, has a long reputation with his tenure as finance minister. He oversaw a fiscal policy that led to the highest growth rates of Bolivia. Bolivia had one of the highest growth rates for the past year in the entire region, higher than the United States, a strong amount of foreign reserves, which have diminished with the reduction in hydrocarbon prices, but it is allowed Bolivia to weather and maintain economic stability when other nations like Argentina have faced the crisis.
We’re looking at a candidate that MAS has chosen with an ability to appeal to the middle-class, an ability to appeal to a return to stability and to be offset with strong representation from Bolivian social movements and indigenous groups that support MAS on the part of a very skilled David Choquehuanca.

Gregg Wolpert: I find it interesting that Evo Morales chose Luis Arce to be the candidate of MAS. On the one hand, certainly, like you said, he was responsible for the very successful economic situation of Bolivia, but on the other hand, he doesn’t seem very charismatic, at least from that clip that we saw earlier. What do you think? Is that going to be an issue?

Kathryn Ledebur: It’s not clear. We’ll see. I think at the feeling, and I’m certainly was not privy to the internal discussions and debates within MAS, which continue to be active, which continue to have different points of views that are constantly negotiated, is that after this period of torment and this period of uncertainty, we’ve had four months of uncertainty, conflict and instability in Bolivia, that I think the idea was to go for an option that would project stability, would definitely be a change from the image and the political style of Morales, but a continuation of the economic policies and the vision that gains stalwart support for MAS.
So it remains to be seen, strategically, what works here. Some people perceive Agnes as very charismatic. I don’t agree with that, but I think the people are beginning to understand that there’s a lot more than charisma involved in this race. There’s a lot more at stake. We’ve seen Bolivia’s outward economic outlook downgraded consistently because of the uncertainty and we’re seeing a lot of the criticisms and the coup denials on the part of the Agnes government and her backers really deteriorating as the situation continues to be incredibly precarious.

Gregg Wolpert: Actually I wanted to return also to the issue of the October 20th election, which was claimed to have been riddled with fraud. Now, the claim served, of course, for the opposition as the main argument for overthrowing even Morales and the OAS chimed in by presenting an election report that solidified the fraud claim. However, the Center for Economic and Policy Research has done a detailed analysis of the report, which debunks for a large extent and we’ll do a followup report that is on that analysis that CEPR has conducted as soon as the final analysis comes out, but what I wanted to ask you, is that October 20th election at all still an issue in Bolivia itself? And is it going to have an impact also on the fairness and transparency of the upcoming election?

Kathryn Ledebur: Right now, I feel like the Bolivians are still in emergency mode. There’s a lack of clarity about the elections, it’ll be interesting to see what the followup report suggest, but really, a moment of extreme conflict, although the bullets have stopped flying, that there’s a real focus on the upcoming elections. It’s interesting to know that the electronic problems with the rapid count here are very similar to the problems that existed in the Iowa caucus electronic monitoring. I think there are many parallels between political developments in both countries, but it’s not clear and I think that’s going to be an issue that is going to come up again as soon as the fires are out or as, hopefully, Bolivia will return to a country with rule of law, respect for basic human rights.
I think it’s very interesting to note that the opposition, although, now, the Agnes government and right-wing allies criticize the election results but yet did not participate in the OAS audit. They jumped on the OAS results, but yet they’ve been extremely critical and unaccepting of the Inter-American Commission, another OAS, organism, findings on human rights violations and even extraditional executions and Bolivia. I feel that they pick and choose the findings of an international organism and although the Bolivian government has signed to allow this study, they constantly reject the results. It’s important that an Inter-American Commission expert group arrive in the country soon because right at this point in time, there are still a great deal of human rights violations going on and no consistent external monitoring.

Gregg Wolpert: Hm. I find the point that you raised about Iowa quite interesting, considering that also, the parallel is really quite amazing considering that they stopped the vote count just like in Bolivia, except in Bolivia, of course, this led to a coup and to a nullification of the entire vote. In the US, it was considered to be not that such a big deal and they were allowed to continue with the final result.
Anyway, we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but we’re going to continue to follow the campaign leading up to the May 3rd election. There’s still lots of time until that happens, but we’re going to continue to follow it. I was speaking to Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Thanks again, Kathryn, for having joined us today.

Kathryn Ledebur: Thanks so much for having me.

Gregg Wolpert: And thank you for joining the Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.