Bolivia: Lessons from the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As Bolivian President Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) prepares for the October 12 general election – which opinion polls indicate it will win by wide margins – the MAS appears to be a remarkably diverse organization capable of adapting operations to different regions of the country.  It fits neither the typical journalistic portrayal of Latin American social and political movements as clashing with political parties and elected governments, nor political scientists’ characterization of parties as unitary actors under the control of a unified leadership.  Founded by coca growers in the mid-1990s as their “political instrument” to contest power, the MAS has become the collective political expression of grassroots organizations now in power – to this day having diffuse boundaries and multiple faces, combining features of a grassroots movement and a party, and being a remarkably successful instrument for exercising rule.

The MAS’s regional diversity is one of its greatest strengths.  As an organizational actor, it looks and operates differently in different contexts depending on how the political space is structured.  In the Bolivian central region of the Chapare, where strong peasant unions are aligned with the MAS and control the territory, civil society and party are fused.  Grassroots organizations monopolize the political space, and local decision-making structures are embedded in the union structure.  Their success is rooted in “agrarian union democracy,” which emphasizes that “bases” exert control on the leadership – that the rank and file should lead and leaders should follow.  In the eastern city of Santa Cruz, on the other hand, the MAS has made inroads in traditionally hostile territory by developing an unusually strong local party organization with remarkable mobilization capacity, and that capacity gives it a central role in local governance.  As in other cities with large informal economies, the local structure draws support from two powerful urban sectors – transportation workers and street venders – and is organized territorially in districts that operate both during and between elections.  Rather than having the features of a movement, in Santa Cruz the MAS looks and works more like a conventional political party.  In the Chapare, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, the MAS organization has considerable latitude to operate locally within alliances and policies usually defined at the national level.  As a result, the MAS and its governmental counterparts are not often, or by necessity, in tension.

Latin American history offers many examples of political movements becoming personalistic vehicles for charismatic leaders.  More than 10 years since it became a credible electoral vehicle, the MAS may offer a more promising organizational alternative.  Morales is certainly a charismatic leader, with significant popular legitimacy and authority within the MAS.  His leadership cannot be overstated, and he is the dominant figure binding a wide array of grassroots movements and organizations.  Yet, the MAS has remained permeable to popular input in areas where civil society is strong and has mechanisms to arrive at collective decisions.  In the last general elections in 2009, grassroots influence was consequential: it led to the massive entrance of individuals and members of allied grassroots organizations into the highest level of political representation.  Their participation in Congress (the Plurinational Legislative Assembly) has pushed to diversify the legislative agenda still largely subordinated to the executive.  New MAS leaders willing or able to challenge Morales’s leadership have not emerged but, as the candidacies for the upcoming elections are defined, the strong regional dynamics could alter the composition of the new parliamentary group.  Whether the MAS will remain open, and whether it will manage to outgrow its dominant leader figure, will depend on the continuing strength of allied groups in civil society.

*Santiago Anria is a Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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