In the second blog post of this five-part seriesProfessor Jean-Paul Faguet  explains Bolivia’s political collapse as a deep tectonic shift in its main axis of politics.   

Click here to hear Duncan Green’s interview with Jean Paul Faguet on what Bolivia tells us about rapid collapses of Political Party systems.

PART 2: Collapse and rebirth

The collapse of Bolivia’s politics was not caused by a president’s unpopularity or even a civil uprising, but rather by something far deeper and longer in the making. It was a political earthquake, a tectonic shift that replaced the primary axis of political competition – which described a society Bolivia patently was not – with a new axis better matched to its real, major social cleavage. Political competition over workers vs. capitalists never made sense in a poor country that lacked both. Competing over cultural and ethnic identity made much more sense in a society riven by both.

The revolutionaries of 1952-53 had bequeathed the country with a political ideology and discourse that mimicked the more developed countries of the West. This was perhaps aspirational, and certainly easy to defend at the time. But it was the wrong politics for a poor, agrarian society. It proved long-lived because of two underlying but powerful institutional features: (1) revolutionaries’ new electoral institutions established high barriers to entry around Bolivia’s new politics; and (2) in concert with a highly centralized administration, Bolivian politics was defined as national, not local. It was difficult to establish a new party, which to be recognized anywhere had to compete everywhere from the outset. The combined effect of these requirements was to effectively “freeze” a wrong cleavage in place for decades.

What catalyzed change? Bolivia’s radical decentralization in 1994 provided the trigger by which a cultural cleavage could become political. Before 1994, Bolivia was a highly centralized country where politics was legally and financially restricted to the national level. By creating hundreds of new municipalities, decentralization generated hundreds of spaces of local politics that had not previously existed (Faguet 2012, Faguet and Pöschl 2015). In these new spaces, Bolivia’s indigenous and mestizo majority could at last become political actors in their own right. Over time, new politicians generated their own proposals, found their own political voice, and exercised local power successfully. The irrelevance of the dominant system revealed itself to them not analytically, but in the practical sense of responding to constituents’ demands to win elections. Over the course of a decade, these new actors abandoned first the ideological discourse of the elite party system, and then the parties themselves.

The dam broke in 2002, with a surge of parties emerging all over the country. A handful of parties tightly controlled from the top by privileged, urban elites gave way to 388 parties, most of them new, tiny and with ultra-local concerns, constituted and run by unprivileged, ordinary Bolivians: carpenters, truck drivers, shopkeepers, and many, many farmers. Politics didn’t so much fracture as disintegrate from the bottom up. For a short time there was unbridled party multiplication. But then order began to emerge as many micro-parties federated, and others were absorbed, into the umbrella-like structure of the MAS.

The genesis and structure of the MAS are as important as its ideology. In sharp opposition to Bolivia’s traditional, elite parties, the MAS is a bottom-up phenomenon, formed initially in the rural Chapare region by militant coca growers and displaced miners. Its origins lie in rural, highly local social movements of self-government, and agricultural cooperatives (Anria 2013, Zuazo 2009). From these beginnings, the MAS grew rapidly and achieved stunning electoral success by agglomerating hundreds of independent local organizations under its political umbrella. Its internal characteristics were organized around self-representation and the attainment of local and national power by the indigenous and mestizo majority. This is very different from the top-down organization and clientelistic appeals of traditional parties, whose modus operandi was to capture indigenous votes in order to propel elite politicians into office.

At the local level, the practice of politics rapidly evolved into something very different from the pursuit of power in La Paz. New actors competed for votes and exercised authority in terms of the major problems and demands that actually affected voters’ lives. In a country like Bolivia, these are born of poverty and inequality, discrimination, social and economic exclusion, exploitation, corruption, and oppression – phenomena natural to the deep ethnic and cultural divides that characterize society. The MAS’ structure facilitated its ability to sense these issues and identify responses at the grass roots. Responding to grass-roots demands, as new actors did, de-aligned politics from the left-right chimaera, and re-aligned it with an axis that mirrors most Bolivians’ experience.

A decade after decentralization, Bolivia’s national party system resembled a brittle edifice without foundations. No more than a shove was required to prompt its collapse. Protests against a pipeline to Chile kicked the establishment in the knees, and the edifice tumbled down.

Part 3/5 of the blog series will be posted tomorrow and will use Bolivia’s experience to derive lessons for the West. The five part series is based on a recent article published in the Journal of Democracy.

Professor Jean-Paul Faguet (@jpfaguet) works at the frontier between economics and politics, using quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate the institutions and organizational forms that underpin development. Specific fields include political economy, comparative politics, institutional economics, and development economics.            

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.