Bolivia’s Remarkable Political Stability

By Miguel Centellas*

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Political slogans in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales and his MAS party (Movement for Socialism), calling for “500 more years” of their rule. / Francoise Gaujour / Flickr / Creative Commons

In the 11 years since he was first elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales has delivered remarkable stability and progress even though his drive for power still concerns many opponents.  Along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, he was labelled by some observers as part of the “irresponsible” or “populist” left – in contrast to more “social democratic” leftists like Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.  The “populists” were also widely criticized for weakening and playing loose with democratic institutions and for authoritarian practices associated with the region’s caudillo legacy.  But Morales’ course has neither followed Venezuela’s, whose populist regime lies in ruins with no clear exit strategy; nor Ecuador’s, which looks set to accept a peaceful transition of power to the opposition later this year.  Bolivia appears to have reached a sort of political equilibrium.

  • Despite charged economic rhetoric and his championing of leftist socioeconomic policies, Morales has pursued prudent, conservative macroeconomic policies. Bolivia has carefully increased its reserves from a little over $3 billion in 2006 to more than $15 billion by 2014.  As of 2015 reserves amounted to 40 percent of GDP.  At the same time, the GDP has grown from just over $8 billion in 2000 to nearly $33 billion by 2015, with GDP per capita (PPP) nearly doubling from $3,497 to $6,954 in the same time span.
  • Morales’s signature socioeconomic reforms borrow from the “responsible” leftist models, rather than the vertical chavista model. He has created cash transfer programs similar to those used successfully in Mexico and Brazil.  These bonos, including some created by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, provide unconditional cash for pensions, pre- and post-natal care, and education.  While this spending pales in comparison to “megaprojects” such as highways and soccer stadiums, it goes directly to Bolivian households – with obvious political benefit for the Morales government and clear, direct benefits to average Bolivians.
  • The new constitution adopted in 2009 – a product of compromise between Morales and the regionalist opposition – radically decentralized state structure, satisfying opponents’ desire for significant space at the local level. The eastern lowland regionalist opposition can regularly count on winning governorships in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija, while middle-class, liberal opponents win in the major cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and now even El Alto.  This diffuses political conflicts and prevents the consolidation of unified opposition.  Conflict between the central state and regionalists continues, but it has become routinized and therefore has stabilized.
  • The electoral court, elevated to be a “branch” of government in the 2009 constitution, has remained largely impartial, maintained its political independence, and significantly improved its capabilities – increasing Bolivians’ trust in the legitimacy of elections. A referendum last year, rejecting a constitutional reform that would allow Morales to run for another term in 2019, was managed competently and (for the most part) fairly.

Not all is well, however.  Despite losing the referendum, Morales and his MAS party made clear that he intends to find a way to run for reelection yet again in 2019.  The opposition’s concerns about his authoritarian tendencies are not wholly exaggerated.  Indeed, the government frequently lashes out at its perceived enemies in ways that go well beyond the niceties of democratic adversarial politics.  Likewise, there are clear signs that corruption remains deeply rooted within the government.  But none of this contradicts what seems obvious: The MAS government has brought relative prosperity and stability – even fueling optimism that if (or when) it steps down, its transition may be more like the one that Ecuador appears likely to experience later this year than the meltdown that is tearing apart Venezuela.

March 23, 2017

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute for International Studies and has written extensively on Bolivian electoral and subnational politics.  He also co-directs an interdisciplinary summer field school based in La Paz.

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