Publication State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - International / Transnational - America - Andes Post-Election Bolivia: A Country Divided

Will Evo Morales remain president of Bolivia for a fourth term until 2025?

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Thomas Guthmann, Steffen Heinzelmann,

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October 2019

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Evo Morales in La Paz, Bolivien, 24.10.2019
President Evo Morales after the press conference on 24 October 2019 in the new government building "La Casa Grande del Pueblo" in La Paz, Bolivia REUTERS/David Mercado

Bolivia is divided. According to the official results released by the electoral commission, Evo Morales won the election in the first round—but the results are in dispute: while Morales and his supporters in various cities are celebrating the continuation of his politics of cambio (change), opponents of the government are making accusations of electoral fraud, and international observers are pointing to irregularities and calling for a second-round, run-off election. Can Morales count on a fourth presidential term lasting until 2025—or with there be a run-off vote after all? Things have been moving very quickly in the days since the election on 20 October, and the situation remains unclear. On the day after the election, the country’s top electoral court, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), declared Morales the winner of the first vote. This announcement drew heavy criticism given that on election night, after 84 percent of votes had been counted, Morales was only seven points ahead of his rival Mesa. In order to win in the first round, a candidate has to have either an absolute majority, or more than 40 percent of the vote and at least a 10 percent margin over the second-placed candidate. Confusion had arisen due to the fact that the electoral commission (Órgano Electoral Plurinacional, OEP) suspended the count on the evening of election Sunday and published no further updates to the numbers. In view of these irregularities, critics of the government and opposition candidates began to make accusations of electoral fraud. Videos showing manipulated electoral rolls and ballot papers soon spread via the internet. Just one day after the vote, several Bolivian cities saw protests and attacks on the offices of the electoral authorities. Even before the election, 68 percent of survey respondents had said they considered it possible that the vote would be manipulated. Many of these people felt that their fears had been confirmed when the initial count was suspended for reasons that were unclear,[1] but also when the reports of forged ballots emerged.

Authors

Thomas Guthmann is a journalist and education researcher who currently works at a cultural centre in El Alto and reports for Nachrichtenpool Lateinamerika and Lateinamerika Nachrichten.

Steffen Heinzelmann is a political scientist and works in Bolivia as a communications and international networks consultant.

According to the final results, which were announced four days later on Thursday evening, Morales had received 47.07 percent of the vote, Mesa 36.51 percent, Chi Hyun Chung 8.78, and Carlos Ortíz 4.24 percent. According to this result, Morales was elected in the first round. The situation in Bolivia is unclear, the mood is very tense, protests and recriminations are escalating. The second-placed Mesa has claimed that the result was manipulated and called for resistance.[2] Citizens’ committees in eight departamentos have also called for a run-off election and launched ongoing strikes, including road blockades. Upper-class opponents of the government have been gathering on the streets regularly along with young people, feminists, and indigenous organizations. Electoral observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have expressed concern, criticizing the suspension of the publication of results on election night in particular. On Wednesday they called for a run-off election. The USA, the European Union, and various Latin American countries have also supported the idea of a second-round vote.

President Morales, however, had already declared himself the winner on election Sunday in his speech in the Palacio Quemado: “We have been victorious once again. We’ve now  won four elections in a row, which is historic and unprecedented.”[3] Morales said that he was only waiting for votes to be counted in rural areas, which would confirm his first-round victory with an absolute majority.[4] Morales reiterated this position in a press conference on Wednesday morning and, in light of the protests, warned of an internationally backed “coup” from the right, and called on the population and international organizations to defend democracy. “We are declaring a state of emergency and a peaceful, constitutional, and ongoing mobilization for the defence of this democracy, for which Bolivia has fought so hard.”[5] On Thursday in Cochabamba the governing Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS) celebrated its election victory. Besides the president, the event was attended by party members, unionists, and coca association representatives from the surrounding region. At the same time, President Morales and Foreign Minister Diego Pary offered to instigate a transparent audit of the election process, including a vote-by-vote recount. The OAS accepted the offer.

Although Morales received the most votes, he and his party lost significant ground in comparison with the previous election five years ago. In the months before Bolivians went to the polls, various sides criticized Morales’s intention to run for president for a fourth time, disregarding the facts that the Bolivian constitution allows for only one re-election[6] and that a narrow majority of the population had rejected a further Morales candidacy in a referendum in early 2016.

Clashes between supporters of the two presidential candidates Evo Morales (Movimiento Al Socialismo) and Carlos Mesa (Comunidad Ciudadana) on 24.10.2019 in La Guardia. DANIEL WALKER / AFP.

​​Candidates

Born in 1959 in Isallavi in the departamento of Oruro, Evo Morales Ayma (MAS) has led the government since 22 January 2006. This makes him the longest-ruling president of the Andean country. Morales is Aymara and is considered Latin America’s first indigenous president. He comes from a poor background and grew up with three siblings in the rural highlands, where he first became active in trade unions. In 1982, at the age of 23, like many Bolivians he migrated to the Cochabamba region, as living conditions in the highlands became increasingly difficult. There he became a coca farmer, becoming active in the local coca farmers’ union.[7] After a brief stint as secretary for sports affairs, in 1988 he became executive secretary of the Federación Trópico de Cochabamba,[8] a trade union post he still holds today.

At that time a crusade against drugs was being launched in Bolivia; coca farmers around Morales were in the spotlight. The war on drugs is often described as a period when the political basis of MAS, which besides indigenous associations included above all small peasants’ unions, underwent its baptism of fire at the hands of an extremely powerful opponent, with Bolivian security forces being backed up by special forces from the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

During that time, Morales became an influential leader. When tensions in the country mounted in the early 2000s and a series of political clashes broke out, he was chairman of MAS, a previously unknown splinter party. In the 2002 elections, under Morales’s leadership, the party won 20.9 percent of the vote and was narrowly defeated by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who won with 22.4 percent. With 53.7 percent in the 2005 elections, Morales won an absolute majority—the first candidate to do so in the history of the country.

For practically all of 2019 the polls have suggested that Carlos de Mesa Gisbert of Comunidad Ciudadania (CC)[9] is President Morales’s most promising challenger. Born in La Paz in 1953, Carlos Mesa is known as an intellectual and philanthropist from the upper class. He is an historian, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. Politically speaking, he is hardly an unknown quantity. Mesa was vice president under then-President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada in 2003, at a time when the latter had protests bloodily suppressed in the so-called Bolivian Gas War. In mass protests against an agreement to export natural gas, more than 60 people were killed and several hundred injured; in response, Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign and fled to the USA. In accordance with the constitution, Mesa took over as president, remaining in office until his resignation in 2005. He had to resign not least because of renewed protests by coca farmers in the Chaparé region, called for by Evo Morales, who was a trade union leader at the time.

Mesa has distanced himself from the 2003 military attack on protesters, since dubbed “Black October”. Nevertheless, during the current election campaign he has repeatedly been accused of political proximity to Sánchez de Lozada and the 2003 Gas War. In the week before the election, unknown individuals erected 12 huge billboards in El Alto showing pictures of Mesa with then-President Goni and photos of people killed as part of Black October.

In the election campaign Mesa played the man of the people, appearing in commercials with rolled-up shirt sleeves. He encountered severe criticism in December 2018 when he announced that he would cancel MAS’s social programmes. Apart from that, he has not carved out a particularly well-defined position between the programme of the Morales government and the neoliberalism of fellow hopeful Óscar Ortiz; he has garnered a certain amount of support among those who oppose another term of office for Morales.

Only towards the end of the election campaign did Chi Hyun Chung (Partido Demócrato Cristiano, PDC)[10] succeed in drawing attention to himself. Born in 1970 in Gwangju, South Korea, the doctor and evangelical pastor achieved this primarily through misogynistic and homophobic tirades. He cast homosexuals and transsexuals as sinners and blamed them for the devastating forest fires in the Chiquitanía. Some Bolivian and foreign media have described Chi as the “Bolsonaro of Bolivia”.[11] And indeed, at the election he received a lot of votes, relatively speaking, from Bolivians living in Brazil, and surprisingly came in third with over 8 percent of the overall vote.

Óscar Ortiz Antelo, born in 1969 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, led Chi in the polls during the entire lead-up to the election. Ortiz received support above all from the citizens’ committees “Bolivia Dice No”, a coalition of groups opposed to a further Morales candidacy, which helped secure a majority in the February 2016 referendum. Ortiz has represented the departamento of Santa Cruz as a senator for many years and garnered votes mainly in his home town of Santa Cruz and in neighbouring Beni. With a background in business studies and law, Ortiz focused on a liberal economic programme, and has strong links to the finance and agribusiness sectors in his home region. At the same time, he has announced an intention to tackle corruption; election posters showed him stretching out his empty palms towards viewers above the slogan: “with clean hands”.

The other five presidential candidates each received less than 1 percent of the vote, with the exception of the Movimiento Tercer Sistema, which managed just a litte more than 1 percent. Anti-capitalist and Trotskyist left-wing parties such as Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) or Liga Obrera Revolucionaria—Cuarta Internacional (LOR-CI), which had helped shape the revolution in Bolivia in 1952, were not on the ballot paper. They called for people to spoil their votes (voting is compulsory in Bolivia) and, like some unions independent of MAS, are preparing to take on either a new or an old government on the streets in the post-election period.

Swing against the ruling party and a chaotic count

After almost 14 years in power, Morales and MAS have once again collected a relative majority of the vote, but have this time suffered significant losses. On 20 October 2019, more than seven million registered voters went to the polls to elect not only the president but also 130 lower-house representatives and 36 senators for the 2020–2025 legislative period.

Morales’s victories at previous presidential elections had been decisive. In 2005 he and Vice President Álvaro García Linera were elected with 53.7 percent of the vote, in 2009 they reached 64.2 percent, and in 2014 they still managed 61.4 percent. According to current figures, this year Morales secured just 47.07 percent, slipping almost 15 percentage points compared to five years earlier. Mesa came in second with a surprising 36.51 percent, followed by Chi with 8.78 percent, and Ortiz with 4.24 percent.[12]

On Monday, almost 24 hours after the publication of results had been suspended, the TSE updated the figures of the preliminary count.[13] Morales now had 46.9 percent of the vote, putting him 10 points ahead of nearest rival Mesa (36.7 percent). These figures would be enough to give Morales victory in the first round.[14] The 24-hour hold on the count at a time when it looked as if Morales was going to have to go to a second-round vote, and the ensuing announcement of his victory, gave rise to widespread accusations of electoral manipulation. The OAS’s observation mission called for clarification, and the opposition candidate, Mesa, immediately stressed that “we will not allow a result that would take us to a second round to be manipulated.”[15]

A look at the results across Bolivia’s nine departamentos reveals both the swing against Morales and MAS and the traditional political division of Bolivia between the highlands in the west and the lowlands in the east. In 2014 Morales had won in eight out of nine government districts, this time he did so in five or six.[16] Morales received the most votes in rural areas; while Mesa won the majority in Santa Cruz, La Paz, Cochabamba, and other major cities, Morales was far ahead in indigenous El Alto and in the countryside.

At the elections for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate held on the same day, MAS remained the strongest group, although it lost the two-thirds majority it had previously enjoyed, and may not even reach a simple majority.

Campaign issues

If the election campaign of Morales and MAS emphasized the successes of their previous term in office and campaigned for a further term with the slogan “Futuro Seguro” (Secure Future), Mesa and Ortiz focused on the issue of fighting government and police corruption. Above all, however, they tried to score points by declaring Morales an illegitimate candidate. The latter’s campaign was burdened from the outset by the fact of his defeat in the referendum of 21 February 2016, in which a narrow majority of 51.3 percent voted against a constitutional amendment and thus against any further candidacy on his part. His candidacy was only legitimized by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which in November 2017 allowed a Morales candidacy on the grounds that personal suffrage was a human right, and that the constitutional article prohibiting further candidacy was therefore inadmissible. In doing so, the court invoked Article 23 of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. This controversial ruling strengthened the impression among the opponents of the ruling MAS party that Bolivia is increasingly developing into an authoritarian state under Morales. They use the abbreviation “21F” (an allusion to the date of the referendum) as a symbol for fraud and abuse of power.

On the other hand, MAS supporters have accused the opposition of planning to implement neoliberal economic policies and wanting to reverse the Morales government’s achievements and social programmes. Mesa has consistently been described as a candidate of the past, belonging to a conservative, right-wing Bolivia. They say that as vice president to Sánchez de Lozada he was jointly responsible for the latter’s neoliberal policies.

The successes to which the government was able to point during the campaign have certainly been remarkable. Economic growth, for example, has been steady for years; indeed, at present it is higher than in any other South American country,[17] while their social policies and efforts to combat racism and discrimination have also left their mark on this multi-ethnic country. In addition, MAS has enshrined a number of the indigenous population’s key demands in the new constitution. These include the recognition of 36 indigenous languages, the autonomy of indigenous territories, and the overhaul of the education system.

Thanks to Bolivia’s hitherto stable economic growth, which has filled state coffers primarily through the exploitation and export of raw materials such as natural gas, the government has been able to launch social programmes and reduce poverty throughout the country. Among the supporting pillars of this strategy have been the nationalization of natural gas deposits, the expansion of agriculture, and the expansion of the mining industry to mine lithium and a variety of ores. There are plans to mine lithium on a massive scale in the coming years, and battery production is to be developed in joint ventures with Chinese and German partners. Overall, gross domestic product has quadrupled since Morales took office in 2005. The number of people affected by extreme poverty has been reduced by more than half. In addition, income inequality has decreased in Bolivia—bucking the trend in the region.

As a result of the policies pursued by Morales and MAS, there is now a new indigenous middle class in Bolivia. In recent years, picturesque buildings in El Alto have sprung up like mushrooms: so-called cholets, with futuristic facades and mirrored glass surfaces, topped off with indigenous elements such as the Andean cross.

Even in the relatively rich east of Bolivia, around the economic centre of Santa Cruz, which a few years ago wanted to secede from the rest of the country, the business owners and large landowners of the agricultural industry seem to have made their peace with Morales. Bolivia’s agricultural exports, primarily soya and beef, promote economic growth and support the balance of trade.

All in all, the opposition found it difficult to gain traction during the campaign. Neither Mesa nor Ortiz was able to point to clear alternatives to government policy or, in particular, to MAS’s current economic model. Vice President Álvaro García Linera summarized this in a sarcastic interview with the newspaper La Razón two weeks before election day: “They’re useful to us because they haven’t managed to stir up an appetite, a desire or an expectation on the part of voters for something different, for a different economic system, for a different balance of power in the state.”[18] Only the evangelical preacher Chi caused occasional excitement with his misogynistic and homophobic outbursts and the propagation of a strictly conservative family model. On the other hand, the opposition have hardly mentioned the alarmingly high numbers of women who are murdered each year and the broader problem of violence against women in Bolivia.

Instead, at the beginning of the year, Mesa tried to gain the support of opposition parties and opponents of the government and present himself as their standard-bearer. At a meeting of the opposition in May, the attempt to unify in opposition to MAS failed. Ortiz then attacked Mesa on various occasions and tried to challenge him for second place. Morales’s lead, meanwhile, was never really in question. Right from the start, Mesa was hoping to come second in order to make it to the run-off, since polls were giving the challenger good odds in a head-to-head contest against the incumbent president.

From August onwards, major fires in the Amazon region[19] and in the dry forests of eastern Bolivia dominated the political debate and thus also the election campaign. Shortly before August, the Morales government had passed Act 741 and Decree 3973, permitting forest clearing and “controlled fires” in Beni and Santa Cruz. For many observers this was pork-barrelling for the agricultural industry in an election year—with devastating consequences. From August to October, around four million hectares of rainforest burned, mainly in the region of Santa Cruz. Indigenous communities and environmentalists blamed the Morales government for the catastrophe: claiming that the president’s reaction was too slow and inadequate, that  he promoted the fires through legislation and then failed to fight them decisively enough. At the end of August, with fires already blazing in the Chiquitania, a dry forest in the departamento of Santa Cruz, President Morales celebrated the beginning of meat exports to China with agricultural lobbyists in Santa Cruz. It was not until long-awaited rainfall arrived in October that the fires were extinguished.

Tuffi Aré, a journalist from Santa Cruz, described the Chiquitania as the Achilles heel in the MAS election campaign in August: “until now it seemed as if MAS was ahead and only needed to manage its lead, but the Chiquitania could change all that.” And the forest fires have indeed provoked opposition to Morales, particularly among sections of the urban population and young people. They accuse the government of hypocrisy: while the Bolivian constitution protects the rights of “Mother Earth”, MAS is allowing it to be destroyed—through the exploitation of raw materials, the construction of mega-dams, and the expansion of livestock farming and agribusiness.

But it was not only with these groups that a rift has opened up. Many left-wing and indigenous organizations have also turned their backs on MAS. The country’s liberal economic model, which relies on the exploitation of natural resources and aims to promote conventional industrialization, has little in common with the communitarian economy to which the government continues to pay lip-service.

Result but plenty of conflict

Since the election, uncertainty has reigned and the situation has been extremely tense. Morales has already declared himself the winner and Mesa has announced that there will be a run-off and that he considers a definitive defeat in the first round a fraud that he will not accept. In this situation, the social conflicts in Bolivia between right and left, country and city, highlands in the west and lowlands in the east, indigenous people and mestizos could flare up once more. Tarija, Chuquisaca, Beni, Pando and Potosí saw intense rioting during the night of 22 October, when election authority offices were attacked and set on fire. An open-ended strike was called in Santa Cruz on the same day, and since Friday 25 October the call has been extended throughout the country. 

The opposition is insisting on a second round. Should Mesa win, it is uncertain whether MAS will be able to accept a President Carlos Mesa. At the last major opposition meeting before the election in La Paz, threats were made that President Morales would be arrested if Mesa was elected. The election of the “philanthropist” from the white upper class of La Paz is likely to ring alarm bells for indigenous organizations as well. They fear it would lead to the return of racism and discrimination. On this issue, MAS would have the opportunity to reunite the currently fragmented indigenous and campesino organizations under its leadership and to return to street-based forms of protest.

Beyond declaring that the election had already been won, the government refrained from further provocation in the immediate aftermath. Since then, however, it has used the language of an attempted right-wing coup. Minister of State Romero declared that Mesa is responsible for the riots and will be called to account.

There is no solution to the conflict in sight, given that MAS and Morales are claiming victory in the first round and Mesa is calling for a run-off in December. The latter was also proposed on Wednesday by the OAS as a possible way out of the crisis. For MAS and President Morales, a run-off vote is risky because a united conservative right wing could defeat Morales in a second round; though whether they will manage to come together to this end remains unclear. Although Chi and Ortiz have already assured Mesa of their support, Chi has made his support conditional on Mesa abandoning his liberal position towards feminists and homosexuals. Young people and women will play an interesting role in any run-off election. Half of the Bolivian population is under 25 years old. Most of them have only known Morales as head of state and they take many of the government’s achievements almost for granted. Economic prospects, environmental protection, and gender relations play an important role for a portion of these young people. And women could also play have a major influence on Bolivia’s further development. The proportion of women in the Bolivian parliament is high, but once again the MAS candidates for the presidency and vice presidency are two men, and there was only one woman among the nine presidential candidates. At the same time, the high number of murders of women, everyday violence against women, and unequal treatment in Bolivia’s patriarchal society are topics that are increasingly being discussed. In the week following the election, the well-known Bolivian feminist María Galindo of the organization Mujeres Creando argued that strong women should now propose a solution to the conflict in order to avoid racist confrontation and division.[20] So far, however, there are no signs that the polarized situation will lead to an alliance of independent currents with the ability to defuse the conflict.

The future president must not only prepare to face a divided country, but also, beginning in 2020, an economic downturn, since conditions in the region have deteriorated significantly on account of the economic situation in neighbouring countries and global commodity prices. Above all, relationships with Argentina, where elections will be held on 27 October 2019, and with Bolsonaro’s Brazil, remain unclear. It is uncertain to what extent economic developments can be cushioned by exports to China and Russia and by economic and political cooperation with these countries. Uncertainty also reigns over the exchange rate with the dollar, which is currently being propped up in Bolivia, preventing inflation.

Furthermore, elections in Bolivian departamentos and cities are scheduled for early 2020. The parties and groups will therefore soon face each other in the next election campaign, making cooperation or mutual understanding even more unlikely.


[1] www.paginasiete.bo/nacional/2019/9/29/segun-la-encuesta-68-cree-que-habra-fraude-electoral-232481.html.

[6] This is the fourth time Morales has been returned to office since 2005, but it is only his third candidacy according to the new constitution of 2009, given that the latter was adopted during Morales’s first term.

[7] The term “union” (sindicato) is used liberally in Bolivia, where it also describes organizations such associations and cooperatives. Coca farmers are organized in sindicatos, or unions. Their organizations often act like unions in the sense of the English word, but they are also lobby groups. This text retains the term “union” rather than replacing it with another term.

[8] A coca farmers’ union in the tropical region of the departamento of Cochabamba.

[9] Comunidad Ciudadana is a party alliance founded by the Left Revolutionary Front (Frente Revolucionaria de Izquierda—FRI) and the Sovereignty and Freedom party (Soberanía y Libertad—Sol.Bo) and supported by Unidad Nacional. FRI was formerly a left-wing Marxist party that has handed its structure over to Carlos Mesa, a Sol.Bo candidate is mayor of La Paz. The party originally wanted to run under its own name but was unable to fulfil the formal criteria. Unidad Nacional was formed by the entrepreneur Doria Medina.

[10] The Christian Democratic Party was founded in 1954. At the 2014 presidential election it received 9 percept of the vote.

[11] www.latercera.com/la-tercera-pm/noticia/elecciones-en-bolivia-chi-hyun-chung-el-bolsonaro-boliviano-que-busca-destronar-a-evo-morales/855074/.

[12] All figures from the Órgano Electoral Plurinacioinal: https://computo.oep.org.bo/ (22.10.2019, 8:50 p.m.).

[13] At the election, the OEP published both the figures of the preliminary count, the TREP (Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares, https://trep.oep.org.bo), and the official count (Cómputo oficial, https://computo.oep.org.bo) online. At times this took place simultaneously, and TREP and Cómputo revealed different degrees of progress in the count and differing results, which only increased the confusion.

[14] To achieve a victory in the first round of a presidential election, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the votes or at least 40 percent plus a 10 percent margin over the second-placed candidate.

[16] Morales won a majority in the regions of Cochabamba, La Paz, Oruro, Pando, and Potosí, while Mesa led in Chuquisaca, Santa Cruz, and Tarija. In Beni, with the count almost complete, they remained neck and neck.

[17] Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (Cepal), at: www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-46651662.

[19] At the same time there were also major forest fires in neighbouring countries Brazil, Paraguay, and Peru.

[20] www.paginasiete.bo/opinion/2019/10/23/no-nos-maten-por-una-silla-235207.html.