Although Evo Morales leads polling going into the election, for the first time it is unclear whether he can win in the first round, and his MAS party could also lose its majority in congress. His campaign is built on a decade of strong economic performance and political stability, but Morales has recently been tarnished by his circumvention of presidential term limits, poor handling of wildfires in Santa Cruz, and attempts to undermine genuine opposition. His rival Carlos Mesa has tried to tread a fine line between preserving the best of the Morales years and criticising the worst, but it is still the Morales project that defines the basic contours of Bolivian politics, writes Jorge C. Derpic (University of Georgia).
In the run-up to Bolivia’s presidential election on Sunday, 20 October, 2019, polls suggest that Evo Morales and Alvaro García Linera are leading the race for the country’s presidency and vice-presidency. Crucially, however, to remain in the posts that they have occupied since 2006, they will need to win by a significant margin over their closest challenger, former president Carlos Mesa. On top of that, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) could lose its decade-long hegemony in congress, potentially triggering a period of political instability and drawn-out negotiations.
Can Morales avoid a runoff?
Opinion polling consistently places conservatives Oscar Ortiz and Chi Hyun Chung as rivals for third place, but they are far behind the main contenders, Morales and Mesa. Where polling is less clear is in predicting whether or not Morales can avoid a runoff election on 15 December.
In order to win in the first round, Morales needs either 50 plus one per cent of the vote or 40 per cent with a 10 per cent lead over Mesa. According to a poll by one national university, Morales may reach 40 per cent, but without a 10 per cent lead.
Other polls also suggest that the MAS may be unable to reach 50 per cent of the vote for the first time since 2006 and that the gap between the first- and second-placed contenders is narrowing, especially in the largest department of the country, Santa Cruz. The fires that destroyed 3.6 million hectares of forest in the lowland region of Chiquitania may have affected Morales’ chances of winning in the first round as his response to the crisis came in for severe criticism.
This level of electoral uncertainty is a novelty for the MAS, whose support seems to have peaked in 2014, when six out of ten voters chose Morales and the MAS won two thirds of the available seats in congress.
The erosion of support for Morales and the MAS
In 2016, Morales narrowly lost a referendum to remove presidential term limits that he himself had established via the new constitution of 2010. Despite losing the referendum, he continued to seek a way to run for a fourth term, and ultimately the Constitutional Court somewhat dubiously concluded that to deny him this opportunity would infringe the human right to be elected and hold public office.
In this context, the MAS already feels victorious because Morales managed to run and currently holds the lead in the polls. Two core strengths explain the party’s resilience:
- The country’s strong economic performance over the last 15 years
- The political stability of the last decade, due to close ties with grassroots organisations
As a number of journalists have noted, the forging of new contracts with transnational companies to increase natural-resource revenues allowed the Morales administration to achieve sustained economic growth while also reducing extreme poverty and inequality.
But local experts have added nuance to this depiction, noting that poverty in terms of basic needs has been declining consistently since the 1970s, whereas the reduction in inequality can be explained by a fall in the incomes of trained workers. They also highlight that government investment in extractive industries like hydrocarbons has not translated into reductions in precarious labour nor into significant improvements in areas like basic services, health, or education, where the country still lags behind the rest of Latin America.
Morales’ economic success stems also from an ongoing alliance with his core electoral base, which is made up of grassroots organisations like the federations of coca-leaf growers in Chapare, where he began his political career. The MAS can still count on grassroots electoral support as long as it provides members of these organisations with a path towards the higher echelons of government.
The idea of this harmonious relationship, however, contrasts with the administration’s efforts to co-opt and undermine leaders from opposing factions within other organisations. The MAS has combined law enforcement and state repression with the bottom-up strategy of promoting parallel institutions to undermine opposition leaders. The National Indigenous Peoples Confederation (Conamaq), the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils of El Alto (Fejuve), and the Coca Leaf Growers Association of La Paz (Adepcoca) are cases in point.
The challenge of Carlos Mesa
Mesa, for his part, has made a triumphant comeback to politics over the last five years, leaving behind his past as vice-president in the last neoliberal administration and his resignation from the presidency in 2005, which had left him looking weak and indecisive.
Mesa has run a cautious campaign, garnering support mainly in urban areas. While still unable to attract much support from working-class or rural populations, he has made inroads by promising to preserve some of the core policies of the current administration and strongly criticising others.
He has promised to preserve the social benefits that were introduced in the 1990s and expanded under the current government, as well as rejecting the return of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (expelled from the country by Morales in 2008).
At the same time, Mesa has criticised corruption within public services and the judicial system while also outflanking Morales on extractive industries by taking a highly progressive stance. Where the current administration now privileges extractivism and the expansion of the agricultural frontier for national development, Mesa has voiced opposition to exploitation of natural resources within national parks, especially in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples.
More recently, Mesa has benefited from an unexpected wave of mass mobilisations during the finals weeks of the campaign. Urban residents from different ideological backgrounds have protested against Morales for his inability to manage the Chiquitania fires and for disrespecting democracy. Some factions now rail against domination from the centre, others hurl derogatory chants, and the opposition itself has questioned the impartiality of electoral authorities, which it accuses of being dominated by the MAS. This toxic mix only adds to growing uncertainty over the likelihood of a runoff.
Whether or not the runoff proves necessary, one thing is clear: the agenda that emerged after the wave of social mobilisations in the mid-2000s continues to dominate the Bolivian political arena, and Morales remains its figurehead. Mesa, meanwhile, exemplifies the difficulties inherent in creating an alternative platform that can challenge Morales without fully rejecting what has been a popular and largely stable political project.
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