Media outlets around the world have heralded the victory of Luis Arce and the Movimiento al Socialismo–Instrumento Político por la Soberanía de los Pueblos (MAS) party in the 2020 Bolivian general election as a ‘victory for democracy’, this is an ambitious claim.
Had MAS lost the election there were radical factions of the party prepared to resume the violence of 2019 that could have easily descended into civil war. In actuality, MAS won the election as the fragmented opposition failed to unify and mount a credible challenge. Although there have been protests following MAS’ victory, they are nothing like what would have happened should the result have gone the other way.
Without a local understanding of Bolivia, it is too easy to describe the election as a victory for democracy, after all, the country managed to run an election process that didn’t descend into violence: progress! Despite this, readers should be aware that democratic standards in Bolivia are extremely poor by global standards: in 2019 the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranked the country 104th in its Democracy Index, one of the lowest scores in the region.
The EIU rightly classifies Bolivia as a ‘hybrid regime’, a connotation defined as “a nation with regular electoral frauds, preventing them from being fair and free democracies. These nations commonly have governments that apply pressure on political opposition, non-independent judiciaries, widespread corruption, harassment and pressure placed on the media, anaemic rule of law, and more pronounced faults than flawed democracies in the realms of underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics, and issues in the functioning of governance.” For a broad classification, it is impressive how accurately this describes the local reality.
On the ground, the overriding emotion today is a relief that violence was averted. Opposition voters are resigned to return under the control of MAS for better or worse. Bolivia has extreme inequalities and deep social challenges, which must be overcome and perhaps, in the eyes of their supporters, MAS are best placed to do this.
The main concerns are that MAS are already mounting an unethical if not unconstitutional power grab (hardly democratic), in line with their behaviour over the past 14 years in power, and that any progress will be challenging if Morales – now such a divisive figure – finds a role as shadow-President.
The fall of Evo Morales, who left the country following the fraudulent elections of 2019 and the resulting social unrest and violence, is best understood by looking at his actions in previous years.
Morales’ primary mistake was ignoring the Bolivian Constitution that was reformed and approved by his own administration in 2009. The constitution clearly anticipates a two-term limit on the Presidency, but in 2014 Morales was re-elected for a third term and then he sought to secure a fourth term in 2019. Morales firmly believed that only he could govern the country, and his delusions were being fed by an entourage that would force people to attend his rallies.
It is worth mentioning the merits of Morales’ first two terms as he sought to include the excluded and redistribute wealth to the most in need. Unfortunately, while this inclusion process was taking place, a barrier was built in parallel that marginalised the middle classes from the political agenda. “You have to do a mea culpa,” reflected a former MAS justice minister, “by only including the poorest and the most vulnerable, we showed the middle and upper classes that they would not be allowed to participate.”
Despite their early successes, MAS arrived to the elections in October 2019 worn out and with serious internal fractures, primarily around the indigenous movement and the neglect of the Constitutional Referendum held on 21 February 2016 in which the country did not approve Morales’ re-postulation for a third term. “With these events, MAS began to lose political credibility and its electorate. From 64% in 2014, it fell to 35% in 2019,” commented a campaign manager for the Comunidad Ciudadana (CC) party.
Not surprisingly, the electoral fraud of 2019 was the straw that broke the camel’s back and mobilised large protests across the country. After 21 days of strikes, blockades, violent confrontations and the OAS’s report confirming the electoral fraud, Morales resigned and fled the country to take refuge first in Mexico and later in Argentina.
After a 3-day power vacuum and extreme violence among citizens, Janine Añez, a senator from the Democratic opposition, assumed the presidency, with a unanimous vote in the Legislative Assembly (ALP). “The MAS controlled two-thirds of the Legislative Assembly that voted unanimously, first that electoral fraud had taken place, second that the recent elections had to be annulled and third that Morales’ candidacy violated the Constitution,” commented a constitutional law expert.
As the major national institutions swung their support behind an interim government, caretaker President Añez took command with a clear remit to deliver a peaceful transition, call elections in the shortest possible time and elect a new Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which stood accused of involvement in the electoral fraud.
Shortly after the interim government had established itself, interim President Añez unexpectedly announced her candidacy for the upcoming elections. This dealt a major blow to her legitimacy and impartiality in the transitional process and left the public feeling betrayed. A candidate from Comunidad Ciudadana commented, “The transitional government prioritised its electoral campaign over the pacification of the country. Her only legitimacy was associated with the transition, but she closed that door with her candidacy.”
Then COVID-19 arrived and the resulting maelstrom quickly exposed further weaknesses in the interim government: jobs were not protected, corruption scandals emerged, ministers began resigning and high-ranking officials were jailed. “There was no institutional, cultural or economic ability to fight the pandemic,” highlighted an advisor to the interim Añez government.
An indignant former MAS vice-minister exclaimed, “We have changed health minister 3 times [under the interim government] – the first minister failed with the unions, the second minister is now in jail, the third minister contracted COVID-19 and soon after the Defence Minister was in charge, can you believe it?”
To make matters worse, MAS, which controlled two-thirds of the Legislative Assembly, was in no mood to help and voted to block the import of badly needed donations and international financial support. Furthermore, at the height of the pandemic, radical MAS supporters blocked the passage of food, oxygen and ambulances to the areas that needed it most. Bolivians across the globe despaired.
Amidst this quadruple crisis – political, social, economic and health – and with a country deeply divided, Bolivia finally went to the polls on 18 October 2020, after 3 postponements.
As many expected, MAS prevailed, but the margin of victory was surprising. Luis Arce achieved just over 55%, securing a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and almost a majority in the Senate too. This was the result of a successful electoral campaign by MAS but also a calamitous performance by the opposition parties.
MAS successfully destabilised the country and destroyed the Añez administration through the Legislative Assembly and through resistance by their supporters on the streets. Their greatest advantage was that their party united while the opposition fragmented into 5 candidates. “Choquehuanca was key to uniting MAS. He agreed to go second, despite the power and support he has for the greater good of the party, a rare move for a politician,” commented a Bolivian diplomat in Europe.
The MAS campaign led with a message of hope and reconciliation while promoting Arce’s economic track record and distancing themselves from Morales. The local perception was that MAS was the only party representing the popular vote, the indigenous and the working classes, and the opposition made no effort to dispute this perception. An advisor to Añez commented, “The MAS knows that their strength lies on the street.”
Additionally, the election results show that MAS managed to regain the support of the urban middle class. “The additional 20% on top of their loyal vote of 30% are the people who were outraged by the unconstitutional antics of Morales but are not against MAS as a political party. A new candidate convinced them to return,” explained a former Bolivian Ambassador.
In contrast, Carlos Mesa and his CC party lacked a clear message and ran a negative ‘anti-MAS’ campaign, which proved to be a mistake. After reaching 43% in the 2019 elections, the highest historical vote for an opposition party, it fell to 30% in this year’s election. “Mesa is not new to politics, he should have defined who he is with clear proposals instead of just being anti-MAS,” explained a political scientist and MAS advisor.
Finally, the civil leaders Fernando Camacho and Marco Pumari ended up with 13% of the vote. Camacho’s campaign was mired by scandals and the inclusion of old hated politicians. To make matters worse, as the elections approached, Camacho turned against Mesa, not MAS, opening a wider rift between the opposition leaders. This translated into more votes for MAS.
If Mesa and Camacho/Pumari could have united in the same way that Arce and Choquehuanca did, the result may have been different.
In recent years, almost every election process around the world has been mired by accusations of external influences and these Bolivian elections were no exception.
A high-ranking official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assured us that MAS received planning and organisational support from foreign actors, “The organisational capacity and resources that MAS had in recent months was not their own.” The official went on to claim that support had come from Cuba, with the help of Russia, and operated through Venezuela and the associated governments in Foro de Sao Paolo and in the Puebla Group. “Cuba has mutated Soviet communism into a Latin American hybrid and is currently the bastion of the anti-imperialist struggle in the region, deploying its ideological and strategic planning through soft-power and organisational resource.”
Country members of these networks such as Mexico, Argentina, Cuba and Spain allegedly provided support to Morales and MAS. But why so much interest in Bolivia? “Drug trafficking,” exclaims a Bolivian diplomat, “The entire anti-imperialist movement, commanded from Cuba, is financed by illicit activities. Bolivian drug shipments arrive to Venezuela for further distribution around the world.”
Due to the pandemic and the constant harassment by the Minister of Government, Murillo, the drug traffickers’ business was seriously disrupted but the concern is that with the new government, these criminals will enjoy greater impunity. The producers of Coca leaf (cocaleros) are a powerful group in Bolivia and now two of their leaders have been elected senators of Cochabamba for MAS and one of them has recently been elected as President of the Senate, which means he is third in line to succeed the president. Democracy at its finest!
An advisor to the former Minister of Economy of the interim government explained that although violence has not broken out as it did in Colombia, “You have armed groups, stateless areas, illicit activities and political forces that do not know how to dialogue. There needs to be a pre-emptive peace process.”
There is a climate of extreme polarisation with deep social divisions in the country, “We need someone to take us through a healing process. It is such a polarised country, we can no longer hope it will heal on its own,” explained an Aymaran sociologist.
Luis Arce’s sole agenda is “not to repeat Morales’ mistakes. There is no pressure for deep reforms but he must overcome the economic crisis and close the social gap,” said the former Bolivian Ambassador. To get out of this crisis, “There should be a broad dialogue to avoid economic catastrophe and the looming social collapse,” said a Board Member of the Central Bank.
An advisor of the already dissolved Juntos alliance of President Añez affirms that “more than talking about alliances or pacts, we should be talking about rebuilding the social contract. The current system is no longer representative of the country we have.” An Aymaran sociologist agrees, “The key to starting this healing process is to clearly articulate interests, but for this, it is necessary to first defeat the radical arm of the MAS that wants to form guerrilla groups.”
There are other challenges too, such as the fiscal deficit, the exhaustion of the gas fields (which are the main source of income for the country), judicial reform, etc. but the biggest risk remains political – what kind of MAS will govern Bolivia? Will Arce fulfil his campaign slogan and ‘govern for all’ or will revenge prevail? Will Arce take the reins or will Morales pull the strings? A former advisor to the Creemos party believes the country should move towards “a more tolerant and open society for dialogue” but recognises that “the most dissonant element of MAS is Evo Morales,” and assures that, “without him, anything is possible.”
Even for several left-wing activists and academics, MAS’ victory has the peculiarity that it occurred despite Morales’ absence, a close advisor to Choquehuanca affirms, “The triumph of MAS was winning despite Morales not because of Morales, Arce will have to build his own power with Choquehuanca bringing support from the Aymaran leaders of the highlands of La Paz.”
Meanwhile, MAS are counting the days to return as top dog – despite the fact that for the past 12 months they have effectively been running the country through the public institutions and on the streets – they can then continue to do what they do best, alienate the middle and upper classes, dodge the rule of law, drive their own agenda without debate and maintain the social divisions that keep them in power.
Following the elections, it became clear that MAS will only have a simple majority in the Legislative Assembly, so at midnight on 27 October, they exploited their current two-thirds majority to rush through changes to 11 articles of debate regulations to require only a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority.
Furthermore, the justice system, which is also under the current control of MAS, moved rapidly after the election result to annul the arrest warrant for Morales for alleged sedition and terrorism. Morales is now set to return on 10 November, 2 days after Arce takes power, and intends to embark on a 3-day victory tour to show who is in charge.
It is this type of unethical, borderline unconstitutional, behaviour that makes the calls of ‘a victory for democracy’ look naïve and ill-informed. It is also the driving force behind the protests that are starting to erupt in Bolivia’s largest cities.
In light of all of this, just how will Arce “govern for all”? Watch this space.