Bolivia’s Elections and Evo’s Surprising Political Malaise

By Robert Albro

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Departmental and municipal elections in Bolivia last week dealt a significant setback to President Evo Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).  Benefiting from strong economic growth, broad-based support from among the country’s many social movements, and the absence of major controversy, last October Morales was elected to a third term as Bolivia’s president with an impressive 61 percent of the vote.  He is on track to be in office until 2020, making him the longest-serving leader in Bolivian history.  Last week, however, the party won just four of nine races for departmental governor and two of the races for mayor in Bolivia’s ten largest cities, reversing a trend of sustained MAS dominance since Evo’s election in 2006.  Most alarming for the MAS is that it lost across the board in the previous strongholds of La Paz and El Alto.  This unexpected outcome has touched off speculation that the MAS is running out of steam.

The MAS emerged as a national political force during the sustained social ferment of the early 2000s.  It reaped the benefits of widespread popular disenchantment with government as a movement for change and indigenous enfranchisement, and it built a successful coalition across ethnic, class, rural-urban, and to some extent, regional differences.  The MAS’s rise coincided with the collapse of the country’s established political parties.  As the only remaining national political movement, the MAS has since often identified its approach to governance as a bottom up, participatory, or popular plebiscite – a multiethnic and plurinational vision of local autonomy that it has successfully enshrined in the country’s constitution.  Addressing last week’s upset, Vice President Alvaro García Linera noted the MAS had done a poor job of cultivating new local leaders.  Evo suggested it was a “punishment vote” in response to recent corruption scandals involving MAS candidates.  Nor did Morales do his candidates any favors when he threatened not to work with opposition politicians in El Alto or La Paz if they were elected.

Despite this setback for the MAS, local opposition at the polls does not necessarily lead to national opposition.  The political opposition remains fragmented, and the MAS remains the country’s only truly national political party.  Even where it lost races for governor or mayor, in most cases the MAS enjoys a majority in the state legislatures or city councils.  However, several factors – corruption scandals, continued dependence on the extractive industries, and the party’s habit of co-opting right-wing non-masistas as candidates where it thinks they will win – point to the stubborn persistence of different national and local political realities.  When the MAS has run into problems in recent years, as with recent controversy over a plan to build a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park, it is because it misread local political terrain, chose poor candidates, and ran afoul of regional or local autonomies.  The horizontal and plural coalition-building that has been the MAS’s hallmark can be a clunky local political instrument.  Last week highlighted that local electorates are less driven by social movement ferment, ideology, or historical change; are notably distrustful of MAS impositions from above; and are more interested in prosaic matters of good governance and candidates they know and trust. It was certainly not the beginning of the end of the MAS.  But if the national party continues to struggle in the face of diverse local political realities, it could signal for the MAS a gradual death by a thousand cuts.

April 9, 2015

Bolivia: Evo Wins Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Evo Morales’s landslide election to a third term – fueled by a combination of moderate policies and fiery leftist rhetoric – portends continued stability in the near term, with still no indication of how his party will continue its project after him.  Although official results have yet to be announced, and some preliminary data show Evo garnering around 54 percent of the vote, exit poll estimates gave Evo a massive lead of 60 to 25 percent over the next closest candidate, a wealthy cement magnate named Samuel Doria Medina.  Regardless, the enormous margin separating Evo from his competitors precludes a runoff race.  Doria, who also ran against Evo in 2005 and 2009, claimed that OAS praise for the elections before the polls closed was “not normal,” but he is not disputing the results and has conceded defeat.  Congratulations to Evo poured in first from his left-leaning allies – Presidents Maduro (Venezuela), Mujica (Uruguay), Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), and Sánchez Cerén (El Salvador) – but other voices soon followed.  The victory set Evo on track to be the longest-serving president in Bolivian history since national founder Andrés de Santa Cruz lost power in 1839.  His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is also reported to have expanded its control of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, although vote tallies are not final.

Evo has achieved things his domestic and foreign detractors said were impossible.  While his rhetoric has been stridently leftist and anti-U.S. – he even dedicated his “anti-imperialist triumph” to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro – his policies have been decidedly pragmatic and disciplined, and the results have curried favor for him among foes.  His economic czar has emphasized Bolivia’s commitment to “have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium … applying economic science.”  The economy grew 6.8 percent last year and is on course to grow another 5 percent this year.  Foreign reserves have skyrocketed; Bolivia’s are proportionately the largest in the world.  Poverty has declined; one in five Bolivians now lives in extreme poverty, as compared to one in three eight years ago.  IMF and World Bank officials, whose policies Evo largely rejected, have grudgingly conceded he has managed the economy well.  Some of his projects, such as a teleférico cable car system linking La Paz with the sprawling city of El Alto, have garnered praise for their economic and political vision.  He even won in the province of Santa Cruz, a cradle of anti-Evo conspiracy several years ago.  In foreign policy, he has good ties across the continent, but strains with Washington continue.  The two countries have been without ambassadors in each other’s capital since 2008, and talks to resolve differences over the activities of DEA and USAID failed and led to their expulsion from Bolivia.

Sixty-plus percent in a clean election for a third term – rare if your initials aren’t FDR – signals that Evo, like Roosevelt, is a transformative figure.  No matter how brilliantly Evo has led the country, however, the big gap between his MAS party and the opposition suggests political imbalances that could threaten progress over time if he doesn’t move to spread out the power.  Evo has given the MAS power to implement his agenda, but he has not given space to rising potential successors.  He has said he will “respect the Constitution” regarding a now-disallowed fourth term, but it would take great discipline not to encourage his two-thirds majority in the Senate to go ahead with an amendment allowing him yet another term.  It would be naïve, moreover, to dismiss out of hand the opposition’s allegations of corruption by Evo’s government, but his ability to grow his base above the poor and well into the middle class suggests that, for now, the fraud and abuse do not appear to be very debilitating … yet.  Washington, for its part, seems content with a relationship lacking substance rather than joining the rest of the hemisphere in cooperating with Bolivia where it can.

Other AULABLOG posts on this and related topics:  ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession; Lessons from the MAS; and Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

October 14, 2014