Bolivia: Impressive Victory, Huge Challenges

By Valery Valdez Pinto*

Polling place in Quillacollo, Cochabamba.
Polling place in Quillacollo, Cochabamba./ Valery Valdez Pinto

The Movimiento al Socialismo’s (MAS) first-round electoral victory last weekend surprised even some masistas – and antimasista claims of fraud are not gaining traction – but President-elect Luis Arce Catacora will take office on November 8 amid daunting political, social, economic, and public health challenges.

  • Winning 55.1 percent of the vote, Arce and his running mate, former Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, surpassed what even the most optimistic polls predicted. Despite initial distrust in election-day exit polls – sole measure of the contests after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) cancelled the official quick-counts out of fear they would destabilize the process – outgoing interim President Jeanine Áñez, who dropped out of the race in September, and Comunidad Ciudadana candidate Carlos Mesa congratulated Arce early in the process. Creemos candidate Luis Fernando Camacho made his tearful concession speech later. MAS supporters peacefully took to the streets and celebrated with firecrackers, indigenous music, wiphalas (flags celebrating Bolivian multiculturalism), and a boisterous rhetoric of a return to democracy.
  • Some in the antimasista camp (apparently without Mesa’s support) have alleged fraud but failed to present evidence. The defeat of Arce’s opponents at the polls, moreover, seems to have aggravated splits among them. The new President’s inauguration is expected to be a relatively calm transfer of power in, as many MAS supporters would say, a restoration of democratic continuity. Analysts credit the MAS’s efforts to clean up its image since the tumultuous elections of October 2019.

Opposition leaders’ statements promise continued challenges to the new government, but they have serious internal problems to overcome. Mesa and Camacho, running on centrist and rightist platforms respectively, offered little to undecided voters, including most importantly voters in rural areas – where they hardly campaigned – as well as voters disillusioned by the conduct of the MAS and former President Evo Morales in last year’s tumultuous elections. Camacho’s unwillingness to drop out of the race also split the anti-MAS ranks, depriving Mesa of valuable votes in the important Santa Cruz area.

  • Mesa (runner-up in the election) and Camacho (a distant third) both tried to persuade voters that they represented the voto útil – that a vote for them would not be wasted – but neither succeeded. Mesa’s campaign weakened as the election got closer, reviving long-standing criticism of his “tibio” personality, and Camacho was running on a regionalist platform that only resonated with the communities in Santa Cruz. Neither seemed to recognize the diversity of Bolivia’s 11.5 million people, leaving an important number of indigenous to again find a political home in the MAS.
  • Bolivian political analysts also assert that Mesa and Camacho were hurt by the Áñez’s government’s extensions in power and her widely criticized handling of the COVID 19 pandemic and its economic impact. Local observers say the pandemic turned a transitional government into one that felt like a complete term. The antimasistas were originally hopeful that her administration would pave the way for their victory, but allegations of corruption and widespread disillusionment due to her administration’s repression of Morales’s supporters and indigenous interests in general, the pandemic, and the economy all undermined the credibility of anti-MAS politicians.

Although antimasistas in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba are planning protests, most prominent oppositionists appear aware that challenging the elections is unlikely to be a winning strategy. Reports from media across the political spectrum indicate that Bolivians’ main focus is to navigate through the broken economy and the continuous threat posed by the pandemic. Moving forward with a return of MAS to power will nonetheless be difficult for some in the opposition. Hardliners are already condemning allegedly clandestine negotiations between some opposition leaders, including Áñez and Mesa, and Arce and his team. Suspicions that anti-MAS objectives will be sold out for personal advantage will aggravate divisions among rightists.

  • Even if political pressures subside, Arce faces massive challenges. He is Evo Morales’s hand-picked successor but has to keep him at a distance and make good on promises to continue reforming MAS, learning from mistakes made during the former President’s 14 years in power. Arce has pledged to “govern for all Bolivians” and “bring unity to our country” – monumental tasks in a nation unaccustomed to inclusion and compromise, especially during profound health and economic crises. As former Minister of Economy and Public Finance, he built a reputation for pragmatism – such as measures to strengthen the internal market and to industrialize natural resources – but fear and distrust at all levels of society are formidable obstacles. Arce has to rebuild and reform the MAS, and the opposition has to rebuild itself around a strategy that includes traditionally non-Bolivian values of positive engagement with a party and large segments of society that they, under Jeanine Áñez, tried hard to put in a box.

October 29, 2020

* Valery Valdez Pinto is a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and a Graduate Assistant at CLALS.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: