Bolivia Goes to the Polls in the Midst of Health, Economic and Political Crisis

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On October 18, Bolivia elects its president, vice president, and all the senators and deputies for a term ending in 2025. The election is a repeat of the October 2019 elections, which were annulled after a coup that led to the resignation and flight into exile of President Evo Morales. If everything goes as agreed, the country will regain the democratic path lost last year.

The elections were already postponed three times and now take place in the middle of a pandemic. On September 17, the de facto president, Jeanine Áñez, resigned her candidacy after the publication of a poll that showed her with marginal chances of winning, espousing the need to unify the right. Her resignation generates intrigues and opens up new scenarios in the conservative bloc that former president Carlos Mesa and the former president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Luis Fernando Camacho, are now disputing.

Its major opponent, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), goes into the elections with its historical leader, ex-president Evo Morales, ruled ineligible by the court and in exile in Argentina. The MAS seeks to return to power with a presidential formula headed by two officials from Morales’ administration: Luis Arce Catacora, the former minister of economy and David Choquehuanca, former minister of foreign relations.

In the 2019 elections, then-president Morales won, with official results showing him slightly above the 10% that dictates whether the elections go into a second round or not. But the opposition, citing a report by the Elections Mission of the Organization of American States that was later found to be severely flawed, denounced fraud. Morales formally announced a new call for new elections on November 10, but the military demanded his resignation. Morales resigned, denounced a coup, and was forced into exile, first in Mexico and then in Argentina.

Originally the new elections were to be on May 3, a date that initially that was initially supported by the de facto president Añez, who took office temporarily after the removal of Morales. However, Covid-19 forced the elections to be postponed to September 6, since the country entered a quarantine stage in March. Then, not without tension [1], the election was postponed to Oct. 18.

During the last almost 14 years of the MAS government of Morales, the longest in the country’s history, Bolivia was a country that stood out in the region for its political and economic stability. But now it is shipwrecked in the midst of economic and political crises, to which a new one has been added: Covid-19.

A key piece of information to understand the movements of the MAS is the fact that Morales is in Buenos Aires and that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has disqualified him as a candidate for Senator for Cochabamba [2]. This absence sets the tone for the entire campaign

“The fact that Morales ended up being silenced, marginalized, made it easier for everything to revolve around the presidential binomial. Morales’ decision-making power has diminished,” said sociologist Fernando Mayorga.

A year ago, the MAS party would have been unthinkable without Evo. His figure had such force that he launched his candidacy for the presidency despite the results of a 2016 referendum in which the public voted against modifying the constitution to enable indefinite presidential re-election. The referendum result was one of the opposition’s arguments at that time to take to the streets to reject the result of the October 2019 election and give shape to the coup. According to Marcelo Arequipa, doctor in Political Sciences and university professor in La Paz, “We are facing a test. The question is whether there is more MASism than Evo-ism, or not ”.

Faced with the new scenario, the political map shifted. The call for elections forced the MAS to organize support around the new presidential formula. The decision was made in Buenos Aires and after long negotiations, it was finally Morales himself who promoted Arce as a candidate for the presidency.

The Right’s Drive to Stay in Power

Everyone agrees that the October vote will be for or against MAS. Áñez wanted to pick up the anti-MAS vote, but she was not alone. It was also contested mainly by former president Carlos Mesa and former president of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, Luis Fernando Camacho.

“The pandemic was useful to the government because it gave them the opportunity to have more time to campaign. But its repressive measures were compounded by its obvious inefficiency and massive corruption. The first three months she [Añez] reaped political rewards, she faced fear and uncertainty [of Covid-19] with force and religious invocations. There were religious processions with soldiers who gave her a certain prestige by showing herself as the super-mother ”, Mayorga asserted.

Over time her positive image collapsed and, according to the analyst, Añez’s popularity fell. “The pandemic, from being a favorable tool, began to work against her political interests,” he concluded. Bolivia ranks fourth in the world with the most deaths per million inhabitants from Covid-19.

In this context, on September 16 a survey [3] was published that changed the political landscape. The MAS reappeared as the leading force, according to these figures, winning in a first round with 40.3% of the vote. Áñez dropped from second to fourth place, with only10.6%.

Faced with this scenario, the next day Áñez published a video on her twitter account in which she announced that she was withdrawing from the race. “I do so due to the risk that the democratic vote will be divided among several candidates, and as a result of that division the MAS will end up winning this election,” she tweeted. Añez said it herself: she pulled out because she realized that she could not succeed, to favor a candidate who can effectively run head-to-toe with the nemesis of the right, the MAS.

To win in the first round, a candidate must obtain more than 40% of the votes and have a 10% margin over his or her closest opponent, or receive more than 50% of the total vote. The question in October 2020 – the same one that hung in the air in October 2019 – is whether the anti-MAS bloc will manage to rally enough voters around any candidate to go into a second round. The atmosphere is highly polarized, with the MAS going all-out for a first-round win while the conservative bloc seeks to gain enough backing to keep Arce from getting that. Both former President Mesa and Camacho seek to play that role.

In practically all the polls, Mesa remains in second place [4]. As the representative of the middle-class and urban sectors, with a moderate profile and with strength especially in La Paz, his call for a “useful vote” seems to have resonated with the part of the electorate against the MAS, as it did in the 2019 elections when he obtained more than 36% of the votes. His dispute within the conservative field at that time was against Senator Oscar Ortiz, who was finally bumped to fourth place, with only 4% of the votes.

“Mesa belongs to a political force with an anti-party discourse and without an organic constituency. Unlike Áñez and Camacho, they do not have mayors or governorships. It is simply an electoral vehicle,” said Mayorga.

In November 2019, the post-election demonstrations that ended with a police mutiny and the military’s “suggestion” to Evo Morales to resign were not motivated by economic reasons, but now the deficient administration of the pandemic opened the door to new social distress.

Another fact to take into account is that according to the “Your Vote Counts” poll that spurred Áñez’s resignation – always taking into account that the veracity of the polls is limited and that they underrepresent the rural vote – the MAS wins in six of the nine departments (La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Pando, Potosí and Tarija), while Mesa wins in Chuquisaca, Camacho wins in Santa Cruz and Áñez wins in Beni.

Now Camacho and Mesa are vying for Añez’s almost 11% of the vote. As the journalist Mariano Vázquez observed, in western Bolivia the “anti-Evo vote” favors Mesa, while in the eastern part of the country, it tends toward Camacho who leads the voting intention of the vital Santa Cruz department with 31.4% of the vote. In that department, Arce is in second place with 15.8%. It is a key region for the Bolivian economy and one that expressed the most intense opposition during most of Morales’ term. Camacho is today its toughest and most uncompromising expression. He embodied the coup in November 2019 by entering the Palacio Quemado of La Paz with a bible. His nickname is “El Macho” Camacho.

So far Mesa trails in Santa Cruz, which is central. It was precisely the great victory in that department in October 2019 that enabled him to fight to the end against Evo Morales. That scenario, today, seems more difficult.

The MAS Regroups

To understand the internal dynamics of the MAS, the classification proposed by the journalist Fernando Molina is interesting:

1) The wing formed by the worker and peasant organizations of the so-called “Unity Pact”: This is directed by David Choquehuanca, former foreign minister between 2006 and 2018, current vice presidential candidate and highland indigenous leader.

2) The traditional left: among them is the presidential candidate, Arce.

3) The grouping made up of neo-Marxist, postmodern, left humanist and progressive democrat intellectuals who joined the MAS on the eve of and after it came to power and who played an important role in government management. A minority of these middle-class elements have ties to Choquehuanca, while a broader portion was related to former vice president García Linera, whose future role is uncertain.

The MAS knows that it must once again bet everything on a first-round win and that its challenge is in the cities. “There is an urban population that has been hit by the health and education crisis. It’s a population that can be reached by a discourse centered on stability. They are middle sectors that in large part define the election and that gave Morales with large majorities,” said Mayorga.

In a pandemic world, the immediate future will be difficult for whoever succeeds. “It is a complex scenario in which social fractures are seen everywhere. There is a regional break in which the East rivals the West. Another split pits the middle classes against the popular classes, and there’s also an ethnic rural-urban division,” said Arequipa.

The new president will have to deal with a health crisis, an economic crisis and a long-standing political wound. And if this were not enough, he will have to fight to solidify  leadership in a whole new context.

Diego González (gonzalezdiegofernando@gmail.com) is a journalist in Buenos Aires. He is an analyst for the South America region of the Americas Program http://www.americas.org.

NOTES:

[1] The Bolivian Workers’ Central (Central Obrera Boliviana-COB) initially opposed the postponement and issued an ultimatum: “Elections in September or social upheaval.”

[2] On the same day that Evo Morales was pronounced ineligible to run, Rafael Correa was also disqualified as a candidate for vice president in the Ecuadoran elections of February 28, 2021.

[3] Your Vote Counts. To arrive at these numbers, 16,000 people in urban and rural areas of the country were surveyed, with coverage in 225 municipalities in the 9 departments (provinces) through two methods: telephone and face-to-face.

This article is translated from the original published by the Americas Program in Spanish October 8, 2020 https://www.americas.org/es/en-medio-de-crisis-sanitaria-economica-y-politica-bolivia-se-prepara-para-nuevas-elecciones/