When Bolivians go to the polls this Sunday (October 18, 2020) to elect a new governor and a new parliament, former president Evo Morales will not appear on the ballot papers. It will be the first election without its participation since 1997, that is, in more than two decades.
Exiled to Argentina, Morales chose his former minister and close ally Luis Arce as a candidate for the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party for the presidency of Bolivia.
Speaking at 1 campaign event in Santa Cruz this week, Arce promised that Morales’s party would return to power: “They pulled a gun for us and forced us to step down, but let’s go back“. Opinion polls show that between 30% and 40% of Bolivians want to see MAS rule the country again.
Many members of indigenous peoples, farmers and the poorest residents of Bolivian cities have hopes that the party could lift the nation out of the crisis generated by the covid-19 pandemic and bring the economy back on track.
But a considerable part of the Bolivians was totally disillusioned with the legend, its authoritarian tendencies and the nepotism in its ranks. They would hate to see the return of Morales, who say they have supported farmers who grow coca leaves.
“If MAS wins the election, there will be no mercy for the opposition“, Says Alejandro Colanzi, a former opposition MP and university professor.
Political chaos in Bolivia
Bolivia has been experiencing a period of turbulence and political instability since last year’s presidential election. Morales, accused of rigging the vote, was forced to resign by the Bolivian army. He was succeeded by a conservative interim government headed by Jeanine Áñez, who, clinging to power, postponed the general election more than once due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This Sunday’s bid is finally aimed at bringing stability back to the country. But Maria Teresa Zegada, a sociologist at the University of Cochabamba, doubts that this will happen. “MAS is threatening not to recognize an advantageous electoral result”, he says.
The expert argues that if the Bolivian opposition wins, it will be “permanently confronted with pressure from social movements, which are controlled by MAS”. Zegada believes that Bolivia could then sink into long-term political instability, as has not been seen since the 1990s.
Companies, in particular, are concerned about the prospect of maintaining political turmoil. “We need stability to be able to make plans, and we need the State to support private companies instead of making things difficult for them,” says Pedro Colanzi, of the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade, based in Santa Cruz. The city is home to 30% of the entire population of Bolivia and is responsible for more than 1/3 of its gross domestic product (GDP).
Bolivia is a deeply polarized country when it comes to economic and political power, a situation aggravated by the continuing tensions between the indigenous and non-indigenous population. Together, these factors make governing the country very challenging.
“If MAS wins, we can face 1 authoritarianism – but the opposition also made mistakes and failed to seize a great opportunity [que foi ocupar o poder]”, Says former parliamentarian Alejandro Colanzi.
Many Bolivians are disappointed with interim President Áñez and her allies, who have been involved in corruption scandals and have expressed extremist religious feelings and racial slanders. Áñez, for example, came to refer to the country’s indigenous peoples as “wild“.
Many believe that she and her ministers are concerned only with their personal gain, in settling accounts and undoing Evo Morales’ social policies.
The country’s opposition, however, is divided. Moderate university professor Carlos Mesa, who is expected to receive around 30% of the vote, according to opinion polls, is supported by Bolivia’s liberal urban middle class.
The conservative and entrepreneurial elite support the right-wing populist Luis Fernando Camacho, projected to take 15% of the vote this Sunday. Some have asked Camacho to give up the race to increase Mesa’s chances, but the populist rejects the idea amid animosities between him and the professor.
In the meantime, candidate Luis Arce is likely to benefit from divided opposition. According to Bolivia’s electoral laws, he only needs 40% of the vote – and a 10 percentage point advantage over the runner-up – to win in the first round.
Political scientist Diego von Vacano is convinced that the MAS candidate would be good for the country at the moment: “Arce is not like Morales; is a cosmopolitan technocrat and the only guarantee that Bolivia will not return to neoliberalism and privatize its lithium reserves“, He says.
Concerns about the future
Regardless of who wins the elections this Sunday, governing Bolivia will be a challenge. “MAS has a reformist wing that supports Vice President David Choquehuanca instead of Arce and Morales, so tensions are inevitable“, Says sociologist Zegada.
Roger Cortez, a specialist in socioeconomics, also predicts problems ahead. “MAS propagates an economic model based on state capitalism and the exploitation of natural resources“. Furthermore, he says, “the pandemic has pushed between 1 and 2 million Bolivians back into poverty.”
Cortez also does not believe that slash-and-burn agriculture and genetically modified crops on the Bolivian plain are sustainable.
Mesa promised a new economic approach, but was vague on the details. In any case, it will be difficult to form majorities in such a fragmented Parliament.
Many Bolivians, therefore, are quite pessimistic about the future. An online survey conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Germany found that 78% of respondents see the situation in Bolivia getting worse, and 57% expect an end to the violence after the elections. Meanwhile, an impressive 80% said they were concerned about the economy and growing poverty.