Bolivia: The Exceptional Case of the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

MAS rally in Bolivia

A rally celebrating the nineteenth anniversary of the MAS in Bolivia. / Tercera Información / Wikimedia Commons

Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) is one of the most important and electorally successful new parties in Latin America because it has succeeded in achieving and maintaining high levels of internal grassroots participation and bottom-up influence, even after assuming national power.  Unlike the ad hoc electoral vehicles created to sustain the support of a single charismatic leader like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the MAS has maintained autonomous forms of social mobilization by popular constituencies that have contributed to keeping party vibrancy and served as a check on concentrated executive power.

  • A “party of movements,” the MAS began as a largely indigenous coca growers’ union, but after 20 years of existence and more than a decade in power, it still deviates from the conventional wisdom that such parties inevitably become oligarchic in their operation. Compared to most other movement-based parties, the MAS remains responsive to the interests, demands, and preferences of its social bases – propelling its leader, Evo Morales, to the presidency but also, at times, limiting his authoritarian tendencies.  My research, recently published in a book entitled When Movements Become Parties, reveals that Bolivia is a rare example in which a party’s social movement origin not only facilitated party-building but also enabled the party to preserve high levels of grassroots participation in the selection of candidates and the crafting of public policies, with “bottom-up” correctives to hierarchy and concentrated executive authority.
  • While institutional checks and balances can be (and have been) weakened by an ambitious leader like Morales, governing parties more open to bottom-up input preserve opportunities to establish checks on decisions and constrain strategic behavior and hierarchical control. Channels to exert “voice” provide incentives for the social bases to shape important decisions, as these bases become de facto veto actors within the organization.  At the broader regime level, when a governing party establishes and upholds well-developed opportunities for bottom-up grass-roots participation, instances of bait-and-switch policy-making are less likely – a condition conducive to policy stability and ensuring the “continued responsiveness” that is central to democratic representation in between election cycles.  Finally, when governing parties are more open, they may generate opportunities and incentives for the political empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups by boosting the input that those groups have in the political power game.

The MAS has avoided extreme forms of professionalism and “top-down” control.  While the party as a bureaucratic organization remains weak after 20 years, that reality has allowed the social bases to act autonomously and continue to influence, constrain, and hold the party’s leadership accountable.  This has enabled the party to maintain unusually strong ties with the country’s major popular movements, which still provide a formidable mass base and coalition of support.  Today, 12 years after it gained power for the first time, the MAS remains the only truly national party in Bolivia and is that country’s dominant party.  The ongoing strength and relative autonomy of social mobilization in Bolivia not only explains much of the MAS’s continued success but also sets the Bolivian case apart from the Brazilian PT, where social mobilization withered, and from Venezuela under Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, where mobilization is strong but largely controlled from above.

The system is far from perfect.  Poised to seek a fourth term in 2019 after a legally dubious maneuver, polls show that Morales may not be unbeatable.  The party lacks a viable successor, and another reelection can open the door to further abuses and greater personalization of power – all of which can undermine the development of the democratic regime.  This could also atrophy the links between the party and segments of its movement base, a process already under way.  Power is already concentrated in an executive administration that too often treats opponents and the press with raw hostility.  Institutions are inefficient, liberal rights are poorly safeguarded, and courts are feeble and politicized.  Even if checks and balances on presidential authority have weakened, however, autonomous grassroots participation, inclusion, and accountability are highly robust.  Inclusion has created a “new normal” in the Bolivian political arena, with larger numbers of Bolivians enjoying rights of citizenship and greater input into political decision-making and into determining who gets what, when, and how – with the MAS at the center.  Seen from the long arc of Bolivian history, this is an exceptional change in a society characterized by social and political exclusion.

November 14, 2018

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College.  His new book, When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2018), studies the internal politics of Latin America’s three most innovative leftist parties: Bolivia’s MAS, Brazil’s PT, and Uruguay’s FA.

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