Bolivia: Ready to Elect a New President?

By Robert Albro

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking to students in Guarnes, Santa Cruz.

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking in Guarnes, Santa Cruz/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/30N5hOF

President of Bolivia since 2006, Evo Morales faces a number of challenges as elections approach later this month, but his strong record appears to set him up for a fourth term in office. When, in 2016, he lost a national referendum vote to suspend term limits so that he could run again this year, his presidency appeared likely to soon end. But in 2017 the country’s highest court threw out the result, which Morales’s detractors understandably viewed as political manipulation. He resolved to run again, a decision met with accusations of authoritarianism and street protests in the indigenous city of El Alto.

  • The President’s disregard for term limits remains contentious. His popularity has declined from the lofty poll numbers he enjoyed throughout the first half of his presidency. He has endured several personal scandals. His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), suffered some surprising setbacks in recent local elections. And his government has provoked political fights with indigenous groups – a bad sign for a candidate reliant on the support of indigenous voters. Most notorious of the confrontations was the so-called TIPNIS controversy, where the government sought to build a highway through a protected indigenous territory to benefit commerce with Brazil.
  • Last month Bolivia was beset by catastrophic wildfires in the lowlands of Santa Cruz, the worst in decades. The administration was criticized for being slow to act and for anti-environmental policies many insist intensified the fires, which provoked a protest march among lowland indigenous groups.

Normally such missteps might open the door for a rival candidate, but Morales is not a normal president. He is a historically transformative leader responsible for the political enfranchisement of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, and for the economic uplift of a large swath of previously impoverished citizens.

  • Morales’s administration is often glossed as leftist or socialist. But this misunderstands his adroit economic stewardship of Bolivia Inc. The country’s economic growth has averaged 5 percent since Morales entered office, with GDP increasing fourfold and export revenue sixfold, marking an impressive turnaround. Government debt has been reduced, inflation remains low, the minimum wage substantially increased, and – backed by a buildup of massive foreign exchange reserves – the currency kept stable. National control of the energy sector has enabled significant revenue reinvestment in popular social programs, including new infrastructure projects, pension benefits, agricultural subsidies, free universal health insurance, and improvements in education. During this period Bolivia ranks first regionally in reducing extreme poverty, while helping to move approximately 1 million largely indigenous Bolivians into the middle class.

Polls vary, but Morales appears to maintain a comfortable lead. The MAS, which came to power as a coalitional indigenous-popular social movement, has evolved into a well-organized and dominant political party, with greater resources and reach than its rivals, enabling it to consolidate or coopt control of key constituencies. The candidate polling second, Carlos Mesa, has been unable to unify a fractured opposition, and has run on a promise of stability, which Bolivians rightly perceive they already enjoy. Elected vice president in 2002, Mesa came to power a year later when popular protests forced then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to flee the country. Mesa represents a troubled era in Bolivian politics to which most Bolivians do not want to return.

Morales appears poised to win on October 20. But the next five years could be bumpy unless he and the MAS solve several urgent problems. As the region’s prolonged natural resource boom ebbs, Bolivia’s long-term economic stability remains vulnerable, given its lack of economic diversity, dependence on fossil fuels for capital growth, failure to develop new export industries such as lithium, and overreliance on neighboring Argentina and Brazil as commodity markets. Morales’s surprisingly poor environmental record, and extractives-dependent economic development model, are likely to lead to further conflicts with indigenous groups over control of territory and resources, and erode key sources of his and his party’s legitimacy. Moreover, the MAS has yet to offer any clues for how it plans to remain a dynamic national political force after its charismatic leader finally departs the scene.

October 4, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS. He has conducted ethnographic research and published widely on popular and indigenous politics along Bolivia’s urban periphery. Much of that work is presented in his book, Roosters at Midnight: Indigenous Signs and Stigma in Local Bolivian Politics (SAR Press, 2010).

 

 

 

 

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