Voter turnout in Bolivia (and a comparison to Colombia)

In the seedbed of one of my previous plantings on Bolivia, Miguel Centellas makes some quite fascinating observations about turnout of poor voters in Bolivia. Much of what he says fits with most of my understanding about poor people’s participation in Latin America: that it is largely instrumental and orchestrated by leaders:

it was clear that protests hit their peak at just about the part where the leaders of the “sindicatos” started handing out the little “fichas” (used to mark attendance). Once the fichas were distributed, a protest of several thousand could dwindle down to less than a hundred. Protesters are either a) paid to protest or b) fined by their local sindicato bosses for failure to attend.

If you will forgive my painting with a terribly broad brush (or should that be digging with a terribly broad spade?), I would say this is fairly typical. However, then I see a contradiction in the next point Miguel makes, and I am puzzled by it:

voter turnout in poor areas is often low due to transportation and other matters, regardless of organization. The day of voting, all public transportation (well, almost all businesses, actually) are shut down. So voter turnout can be low if it’s difficult to reach a polling station.

I am wondering how different this is from Colombia, where I observed some congressional elections as part of my research in the 1990s in both rural and urban areas of the coffee growing region (around Manizales, Chinchiná, and Pereira). Voter turnout tends to be quite low in Colombia, especially in congressional elections (which, unlike in Bolivia, are not on the same day as presidential). Turnout in Colombia tends to be significantly lower in aggregate levels, than in Bolivia. Yet the people who are most likely to vote, in Colombian legislative elections, tend to be precisely those who are organized (and perhaps paid somehow) to vote. So, it remains puzzling to me that Bolivia could have mass organization among the poor that are so effective in mobilizing people that they can shut the major (and minor) cities down for days on end, and yet these same people would have low voter turnout.

Regarding transportation shutdowns on voting day, that is true in Colombia, too. But the buses that would normally run on regular routes are used, along with other vehicles, to transport voters to the polls. The area near polling stations is jammed all day long with buses and other vehicles that transport voters–those affiliated with party or labor or other organizations, that is–to vote. I have never witnessed a Bolivian election, so I do not know how typical this Colombian pattern is (or even it the pattern I am describing is still typical of Colombia, given recent political and institutional changes).

0 thoughts on “Voter turnout in Bolivia (and a comparison to Colombia)

  1. Just in my defense, this wasn’t meant as a contradiction. There is organization among social groups, but it’s not among voters univerally. There’s a key difference. Let me give an example. It’s possible for a sindicato to organize a march of, say, 5,000 people that can shut down the city of La Paz. Now, these people can be observed, they can be monitored by sindicato leaders, ensuring that they a) show up, b) participate, and c) yell the right slogans. This is relatively easy, especially if coercion is used.

    But some problems w/ translating this into voting organization. While a march of 5,000 is huge and can shut down a city, the city of La Paz has about 800,000 people, as does the city of El Alto. For a combined 1.6 million metropolitan area (give or take). Yes, a large rally of thousands can shut down the city (La Paz is chronically easy to shut down due to its layout), but that accounts to a small fraction of the population (and electorate).

    Organizers may be willing to organize voters to get them to polls, but only voters they know will support them. They get less comfortable organizing voters who might not support them. And since voting is secret, it’s a dangerous gambit to get masses of voters to the poll, unless one is absolutely sure how they’ll vote.

    As to the transportation issue. That doesn’t happen in Bolivia. There is absolutely no public transportation (also, there are no regular “routes” in Bolivia’s chaotic privatized public transportation system) on election day.

    But I think the real key is that what you have is an organized minority, which is very vocal & effective. But the largest rallies ralrely include more than 5% of an electorate. The protests that toppled Goni were at most 500,000 at their zenith (combining all the protests in La Paz & Cochabamba & elsewhere), but in a country of 8 million, that’s not much more than 6% of the population, about 10% of the electorate. I guess my point is that I don’t think popular mobilizations can be counted like votes, and they might not have a similar relationship.

    They may have an inverse one: the largest organized group in Bolivia is the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana), but none of the parties sympathetic to them have scored better than about 1% in the polls for decades (and not likely to w/ their slate of candidates this election, either). Even though 1% of voters would make up about 50,000 voters (larger than a typical COB protest march).

    For such reasons I prefer counting votes to counting protesters.

    I can’t explain why the groups that are organized (the poor) tend to live in areas w/ lower voter turnout. But you don’t get paid to vote. Often, protesters get paid 100 Bs. per day (that was about $15 in October 2003) to march (this is higher than the average daily wage), so the incentive to participate in this activity is very high. I wish I could explain these kinds of contradictory results better, but that’s the best I have. Sorry.

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