Bolivians vote to ‘decolonise courts’

Fifty-two judges will be elected in national vote on Sunday, the first of its kind in Latin America.

Evo Morales
Some 5.2 million Bolivians are eligible to elect judges, as critics complain of problems in the justice system [EPA]

La Paz – Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday but not to elect law makers; instead to elect judges.

It will be the first time judges in a Latin American country will be selected by popular vote.  

In Bolivia voters will pick new justices to the Supreme Court as well as judges from three other lower courts. In all, 52 judicial positions will be voted upon. 

President Evo Morales pushed for the election in order to “decolonise the judiciary”, as he put it. Supporters say the election will help strengthen Bolivia’s democracy and also transform a historically weak and inefficient justice system that disenfranchise the county’s indigenous majority.

At the San Pedro prison in La Paz, the problems of the Bolivian judiciary come into sharp focus. The decrepit facility is more than 110 year old, has crumbling walls, and houses more than 2,000 inmates in a facility the size of an entire city block.

It’s an open prison – with no confined jail cells – where all the inmates share an open space with a maze of makeshift rooms where inmates organize themselves by sections.

On Saturday, a team from Al Jazeera spent about an hour touring parts of San Pedro, where as many as fifty inmates were crammed into dimly lit rooms with no running water or bathroom facilities and forced to sleep on filthy mattresses on the ground.

A smell of mold, human feces, and marijuana mixed together.

Walls on the prison were rotting, and some second level floors housing dozens of inmates in one room were so flimsy they felt they could collapse at any moment.

All the inmates are poor, and most have yet to have their cases reviewed by judges. They remain in a state of limbo without the financial resources for top lawyer to push through their cases to a judge.  

The obvious prison overcrowding, jail officials say, is a direct result of a poor judicial system that Sunday’s election is meant to help solve.

The rich and mighty

In Bolivia, it’s well accepted that people who are wealthy and well-connected have access to good lawyers and speedy justice.

Everyone else ends up at prisons like San Pedro.

As of October 11, there were 10,946 people incarcerated in Bolivia. Jorge Antonio Sueiro, director general of the Bolivian prison system, told Al Jazeera about 80 per cent of all inmates in the country are being held on “preventative detention” – meaning they are people who are too poor to hire lawyers and have to wait months and even years to see a judge, all the while having never been formally charged, let alone convicted, of a crime. 

Our correspondent meets with a Bolivian who will be affected by the election [Credit: Maria Elena Romero]

Sueiro strongly supports the election of judges as a first step to make the judicial system more accountable 

“Our justice system is in collapse,” Sueiro told Al Jazeera. “There has been a bad administration of justice in my country with judges that discriminate because of socio-economic class, race, or ethnicity. And now the Bolivian society needs judges elected by the people to administer justice that is fast, transparent, and accurate.”

But not everyone agrees with how the election has been handled thus far.

Juan del Granado, a lawyer and former mayor of La Paz, says the idea behind electing judges is correct in principal, but in practice, he says, President Morales has stacked the ballot with judges who are his supporters, thus only further undermining judiciary independence.

“Only candidates with links to the government were picked to run and that ruined what should have been a historic opportunity for Bolivia,” del Granado told Al Jazeera. He is part of a campaign urging people to leave the ballot blank or mark “no” as a protest vote.

The 125 judicial candidates on the ballot were selected by a congressional assembly committee made up mostly of Morales supporters, however, the opposition was allowed to view the candidates and voice appeals.

Elections as a gamechanger?

The elections are moving ahead, with more than 5.2 million Bolivians required by law to vote. 

According to rules laid out by the electoral commission, fifty per cent of the candidates are women. At least one indigenous person must be on each ballot for every judicial position, and no candidate could be closely affiliated to any political party.

Each candidate had to meet basic education requirements.

More than 400 judicial candidates were disqualified for not meeting the qualifications.

But the election has been a work in progress. Judicial candidates were not allowed to campaign in any way, as per election commission regulations, so the only way voters could get information about who to vote for was through a booklet distributed by the government with candidate bios and resumes or through government sanctioned TV and radio spots that gave equal time to all candidates.

“I think we are ignorant about the elections,” Marta Maceda, a middle aged woman from La Paz, told Al Jazeera. “We are going to vote for people we do not know very well so we hope whoever gets elected puts their hand over their heart and does something to improve the judicial system.”

Last Friday, an elderly indigenous woman named Asunta Chiquipa sat in a plaza across the street from San Pedro prison. She was hunched over, alone, and crying.

She had come to the jail to look for her 19 year old grandson who was apparently arrested for unknown reasons, but she couldn’t get any information about his whereabouts in the jail.

Chiquipa said she is poor and couldn’t afford a lawyer.

“For the rich there is justice,” Chiquipa said. “And for us poor people, with no money, there is not.”

Will electing judges instead of appointing them help people like Chiquipa? Or the thousands of other men and women crammed into jails in this country awaiting their day in court?

On Sunday, the Bolivian people will begin to answer those questions. 

Gabriel Elizondo is an Al Jazeera correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @elizondogabriel

With producing and additional reporting by Jorge Martin Osina and Maria Elena Romero.