The Difficult – if Not Impossible – Game of Bolivian Politics

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jeanine_Añez_Bolivia

Jeanine Añez, January 2020/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Evo Morales’ shocking resignation in November 2019 laid bare Bolivia’s deep social and political divisions – which the increasingly tense impasse over elections is making much worse. Morales’s denouement marked the culmination of political decay traceable to at least 2016, when he and the MAS lost a referendum on re-election and ignored the results. Their insistence on re-election sharply polarized politics, became a focal point for opposition, and left the government vulnerable to a violent conservative backlash.

  • After Morales’s ouster – some call it a coup, others a popular revolt – a relatively unknown figure, Jeanine Áñez, became interim president with a narrow mandate to call elections and promote social pacification. She revealed, however, a personal ambition to stay in the presidency and a commitment to prevent the return of Morales and the MAS by any means, reflecting a raw animosity that was latent in important segments of Bolivia since Morales first came to power in 2006. She brought the Bible “back in the presidential palace” and militated against Morales, deeming him Bolivia’s “number one enemy,” and attempted to fracture and demobilize his social base.
  • Elections have been postponed several times due to the COVID‑19 pandemic. National protests and highway closures by peasant and labor allies of the MAS have surged in the past week, and Áñez’s sinking popularity provides reasons for her attempts to delay the electoral process. Road blockades by movements that back the MAS – and also by grass-roots groups that operate with independence from MAS – demanding elections and COVID assistance are giving rise to worrying threats and direct action by vigilante groups, which in many cases are promoted or at least tolerated by the government.

Similar to the “impossible game” described by Guillermo O’Donnell in post-1955 Argentina, the political field is sharply divided into two major antagonistic camps – masistas and anti-masistas – and neither can govern effectively while excluding the other.

  • Under Áñez, the anti-masista camp has splintered into at least two groups with clearly distinctive class and regional bases of support, but with the shared goal of preventing the return of Morales and the MAS. Through legal channels, Áñez and allied elite agro-industrial groups have pressured electoral authorities to ban MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce. (The MAS used similar draconian measures at least once in the past to exclude candidates.) Credible human rights reports show that MAS leaders, supporters, and allied social organizations have been harassed, intimidated, and violently repressed by state and paramilitary forces.
  • Such attempts to suppress the MAS, Bolivia’s largest party and one with deep societal roots, have spurred social mobilization, conflict, and instability. They also have motivated the MAS to unite, adjust its structures, and recover at least partially after its dramatic political defeat. Polls show that although the MAS no longer commands supermajorities, it could win an election in the first round due to the sharp fragmentation and mutual antagonism within the anti-masista camp. The ongoing popular mobilizations and street confrontations, however, can also undermine the MAS’s electoral reach, especially in urban segments.

Carlos Mesa, who came in second but did not qualify for the runoff under the official, but contested, vote count in the election last October that culminated in Morales’s downfall, is claiming the political center and has emerged as the candidate of the anti-masista urban middle class in the country’s western region. He is currently polling second (behind MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce) but, alienated from the MAS and repelled by Áñez’s authoritarian turn and mismanagement of the pandemic, will have difficulty building a majority. His past experience as Bolivia’s president also shows he is not especially savvy navigating troubled waters.

If elections are held this year, whoever wins the presidency will not “take it all” and will likely have to deal with a divided Congress, a highly mobilized and sharply polarized society, and a deep economic and public health crisis. Bolivia appears to be headed to a difficult – if not impossible – game with highly unpredictable consequences. Continued attempts to undo Morales’s legacy and restrict the participation of the MAS risk sending the country further down an uncertain and perilous road to prolonged violence and conflict.

  • The strength of the social movements backing the MAS make the stakes in this “impossible game” especially high, but Bolivia is not the only country in Latin America where recent efforts have been made to ban specific parties or candidates from participating in elections. Former Brazilian President Lula’s imprisonment on highly contested corruption charges prevented him from running for president at a time when he was leading in the polls, clearing the path for the far-right anti-establishment candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro. Ecuador and Peru both face political conflict over the electoral participation or proscription of parties associated with former president Rafael Correa, in the former, and Keiko Fujimori, in the latter.
  • Adjudicating the misdeeds that supposedly justify these disqualifications inevitably politicizes the judiciary and other oversight institutions, and the exclusion of major political currents from participating in democratic politics is deeply polarizing. The electoral proscriptions of Peronism in Argentina and the APRA party in Peru historically suggest that it is virtually impossible to stabilize democratic institutions when a country’s largest and best-organized political forces are banned from participation because elite groups, who are smaller and less densely organized, find them threatening. The Bolivian case is surely different from post-1955 Argentina, but Áñez’s backers and the MAS should not ignore the historical experiences of the region that suggest these games rarely end well.

August 12, 2020

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government and Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University.

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1 Comment

  1. Why was Evo Morales’ resignation shocking? Bolivian law and democratic principles required him to have left office years before. It seems like the Bolivian electorate opted for democracy and change over Morales’ “promise of me forever.” You might want to re-characterize the “conservative backlash” as a populist revolt to Morales’ losing the referendum and still holding on to power. Maybe the masses are not so dumb after all.

    Reply

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