The landslide victory of the Moviemento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivian elections Oct. 18 is a real boost for a left that has been flagging across Latin America in recent years. As a referendum on whether left governments are vi-able, the win sent a loud and clear message that Bolivians prefer a left-of-center government to rule by elites.
Luis Arce and his running mate David Choquehanca defeated their nearest rivals by more than 20 percent and won more votes than Evo Morales had in contested elections a year ago, suggesting that the electorate didn’t reject the MAS social-democratic project so much as oppose the continuation of Evo Morales in power.
“It would be nice to have someone new,” said Cochabamba street vendor Ivon Flores during the run-up to last year’s elections. Morales ran for a fourth term last November in violation of the 2009 constitution and after losing a 2016 referendum on whether he could be a candidate again. This desire to hold onto power is a chronic problem for left governments in countries with weak institutions like Bolivia.
A significant factor propelling the MAS win was the re-articulation of popular indigenous, peasant and union movements after Morales was ousted in a coup last November. These movements had lost much of their independence and influence during Morales’s almost 14 years as president, with their leaders absorbed into government, co opted by benefits such as government-financed union headquarters or marginalized when they disagreed with the MAS.
Social movements reorganized rapidly after the November 2019 coup, showing independence from Morales when they differed with him on candidates for the elections originally scheduled for May 2019. Arce and Choquehuanca were a compromise choice.
A massive blockade across the country in August forced “interim” President Jeanine Áñez, who had been installed by the far right last November, to call elections in October. She postponed them twice, ostensibly because of COVID, but in fact the virus served as a cover to prolong repression.
The mishandling of the coronavirus by Áñez’s government impoverished people whose incomes had spiked during Morales’s presidency, and many found themselves with insufficient money to buy food. With a higher percentage of Bolivians working in informal jobs than anywhere else in the world, few could stick to the strict lockdown imposed by Áñez without much in the way of public assistance. This facilitated the spread of the virus leading to the world’s third-highest per-capita death rate. Whatever public confidence remained in Áñez dissipated entirely when the health minister was arrested for fraud involving a multimillion dollar ventilator purchase.
The MAS win signals the vibrancy of Bolivian democracy in a country with a long history of instability and unconstitutional political transitions. Although the interim government called the previous MAS government a “dictatorship” and Evo Morales a “tyrant,” it recognized the 2020 election results almost immediately. The only naysayer is the candidate who finished third place, far-right firebrand Luis Fernando Camacho. He tweeted Oct. 20 that the results were fraudulent, but while demonstrations erupted in three cities, little violence was reported. Last November Camacho bragged that he persuaded the police to mutiny and his father convinced the military to desert Morales, moves that together precipitated Evo’s downfall.
The opposition candidates focused their campaigns on defeating the MAS at all costs, while Arce and Choquehuanca astutely emphasized the economic stability the previous MAS government had brought compared to the current economic meltdown. Venomous and racist statements by the far-right opposition convinced many of those with indigenous roots that they were safer with the MAS. “We don’t want the racism of the past to come back,” said Petronilla Guzmán, who sells fruit outside a market in La Paz.
Both the police and military were granted immunity by Áñez’s government when they violently repressed working-class and indigenous people protesting Morales’s ouster. Two massacres caused almost 30 deaths and hundreds wounded. “The repression we suffered was worse than under the dictatorships that I lived through as a student because they threatened our families and to burn our houses down,” said veteran union leader Rolando Borda Padilla from Santa Cruz.
As the new standard bearers for progressive politics in Latin America, Arce and Choquehuanca face enormous challenges. The most immediate is the coronavirus and growing poverty. Linked to this, but only partially caused by it, is an economy that has contracted almost 8% to date in 2020.
Arce has proposed resuscitating the economy through expanded biodiesel production and by industrializing Bolivia’s lithium reserves. These options both have high environmental costs, echoing the ecological predicaments that plagued the Morales administration. Deforestation has doubled since 2015, the highest rate in Latin America. 2020 is the second year of disastrous fires, most of them set by large-scale soy and cattle producers to clear land, resulting in the destruction of largest swathes of eastern Bolivia, including parts of parks and indigenous territories.
Getting the military and police, whose privileges expanded under Áñez, to fully commit to civilian rule will be high on the MAS agenda, as is the goal of containing the far right. Its candidate, Luis Fernando Camacho, won 14.3% of the vote. Then there is the question of whether the new MAS government will prosecute Jeanine Áñez, her Interior Minister Arturo Murillo, who was the architect of much of the repression, and other officials for the violence they unleashed. Or will they successfully flee to the United States or Brazil as others have in the past?
Within MAS, keeping the charismatic and powerful Morales in check will not be easy. While Arce and Choquehuanca have stated repeatedly that he will not have a governmental role, they both worked under him for over a decade and he still exerts enormous influence over the party. “We see him as a historical figure,” Luis Arce told The New York Times.
Strengthening middle leadership levels is essential, according to Juan Carlos Pinto, who worked in the vice president’s office under the previous MAS government. This goes hand in hand with controlling the patronage politics that plagued the MAS just as it has all administrations in Bolivia.
It appears some sectors of MAS have been humbled by its year out of office. For the first time in many years, leaders of the union movement and MAS militants like Rolando Borda Padilla talk about “the errors we made. We had people who took advantage of the process for personal ends,” he explained. “We must engage in a process of criticism and self-criticism.”
Arce and Choquehaunca’s 54.6% win does not guarantee a solid base of support going forward as although the MAS still holds a majority in the Legislative Assembly, it lost the two-thirds control it had enjoyed since 2011. According to sociologist Julio Córdova Villazón, after eight years of almost complete hegemony, the MAS will need to relearn how to negotiate with the opposition.
But all that lies ahead. For now, MAS is basking in its success. At the victory party Sunday night, Arce promised, “We will govern for all Bolivians and construct a national unity government … We are going to restart our process of change and move it forward.”
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