Wednesday, May 12

A Bitter Election. Accusations of Fraud. And Now Second Thoughts.

The election was the most tightly contested in decades: Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, was running for a fourth term, facing an opposition that saw him as authoritarian and unwilling to relinquish power.

As the preliminary vote count began, on Oct. 20, 2019, tensions ran high. When the tallying stopped — suddenly and without explanation — then resumed again a full day later, it showed Mr. Morales had just enough votes to eke out a victory.

Amid suspicions of fraud, protests broke out across the country, and the international community turned to the Organization of American States, which had been invited to observe the elections, for its assessment.

The organization’s statement, which cited “an inexplicable change” that “drastically modifies the fate of the election,” heightened doubts about the fairness of the vote and fueled a chain of events that changed the South American nation’s history. The opposition seized on the claim to escalate protests, gather international support, and push Mr. Morales from power with military support weeks later.

To be sure, the authors said their analysis focused only on the O.A.S.’s statistical analysis of the voting results, and does not prove that the election was free and fair. In fact, there were a lot of documented problems with the vote.

The United States State Department quickly reacted to the O.A.S. statement, accusing electoral officials of trying to “subvert Bolivia’s democracy.” Carlos Mesa, the main opposition candidate, and Luis Fernando Camacho, a principal leader of the protests, both cited the organization’s claim to justify their calls for street action.

“The O.A.S., as observers, ratified the doubts that all Bolivians had and the worry that their vote has been violated,” Mr. Camacho said in a video address on Oct. 22.

As demonstrations intensified in the following weeks, Mr. Morales started to lose the support of security forces. A trickle of government defections turned into a flood.

A visibly haggard Mr. Morales went on national television to offer new elections, but by then it was too late. The same day, the military asked Mr. Morales to stand down. He fled into exile soon after.

“The O.A.S. ended up sinking any legitimacy the voting results might have had,” said Gonzalo Mendieta, a prominent Bolivian columnist.

In their audit of the elections, the organization said it found a “highly unlikely trend in the last 5 percent of the count” that pushed Mr. Morales above the threshold for outright victory, without a runoff.

The authors of the new study said they were unable to replicate the O.A.S.’s findings using its likely techniques. They said a sudden change in the trend appeared only when they excluded results from the manually processed, late-reporting polling booths.

This suggests that the organization used an incorrect data set to reach its conclusion, the researchers said. The difference is significant: the 1,500 excluded late-reporting booths account for the bulk of the final votes that the O.A.S. statistical analysis claims are suspicious.

Also, the academics said the organization used an inappropriate statistical method that artificially created the appearance of a break in the voting trend.

The O.A.S. consultant who conducted their statistical analysis, Professor Irfan Nooruddin of Georgetown University, said the new study misrepresented his work and were wrong. He did not provide details and did not share his methods or data with the authors of the study, despite repeated requests.

For his part, Mr. De Icaza, with the O.A.S., said that, broadly speaking, the data from Bolivia’s most recent elections was too flawed to draw any meaningful conclusions.

“You’re are doing a statistical exercise on documents that are falsified,” he said. “The question is not whether the false numbers add up. The question is whether they are false or not — and they are.”

Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia.

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