Bolivia: Evo Morales re-elected, important challenges lie ahead

Evo Morales addresses supporters in La Paz on election night. In foreground is David Choquehuenca, Bolivia’s foreign minister.

By Richard Fidler

October 19, 2014 -- Life on the Left, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- As expected, Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) government won a resounding victory in Bolivia’s national presidential and parliamentary election October 12.

Although official results will not be available until November (more on that below), the MAS was re-elected with just over 61% of the popular vote, three percentage points less than in 2009 and short of the 74% support the MAS had proclaimed as its goal. However, the MAS vote was more evenly spread throughout the country; it won a plurality in eight of Bolivia’s nine departments, including three of the four that make up the so-called “half-moon” in the country’s east and north, which in 2008 were in open revolt against the indigenous-led government.

In the bicameral Plurinational Legislative Assembly (ALP), the MAS may have regained the two-thirds majority it won in 2009. When the plurinominal seats (based on proportional representation of the parties with 3% or more of the national vote — see note 1) are awarded, the MAS will likely have 113 of the 166 seats — 25 of the 36 Senators and 88 of the 130 Deputies, or 68% of the total.[1] This would mean that the MAS will be able unilaterally to amend Bolivia’s Constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority vote.

At present the Constitution bars further re-election for Evo Morales. But an amendment could allow Evo Morales to run again in 2019, as many MAS supporters fervently hope. In any case, as the country’s first indigenous president, he is about to become Bolivia’s longest serving leader in a country famous for its coup-ridden past.

Almost half of the ALP members will now be women, as the new Constitution requires each party slate to include gender parity.

Among the four major opposition parties, all to the right of the MAS, the most votes went to Democratic Unity (UD), a coalition of the parties headed by millionaire businessman Samuel Doria Medina and Ruben Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz department. Doria Medina, the ex-minister in charge of many privatizations in previous neoliberal governments, made his fortune in cement production and is also the Bolivian owner of the Burger King chain. Costas was a leader of the 2008 failed insurrection.

The UD took about 25% of the vote, considerably more than the 18% it registered in pre-election public opinion polling. It was followed by the Christian Democrats led by former conservative president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, with about 9%. Trailing far behind were the Movimiento Sin Miedo (the Fearless Movement) led by former La Paz mayor Juan del Granado, and the Partido Verde (Greens), led by Fernando Vargas, a lowlands indigenous leader of the 2011 TIPNIS march. With less than 3% each, the latter two parties risk losing their official status under Bolivia’s election law.

Almost three million Bolivians live outside the country, mainly in neighboring Argentina and Brazil, as well as Spain and the United States. In this election these economic exiles had the right to vote, and in the 33 countries where this was possible the vote abroad went heavily in favour of the MAS, which took 72%. Last year was the first in many years in which more Bolivians returned to take up residence in the country than left to find work elsewhere, a reflection of the relative prosperity the country is enjoying under the Morales government.

MAS outlines its agenda for coming mandate

The MAS ran on its well-known record of impressive progress in social policy and improvements in living standards, promising more of the same with a shift in the coming mandate toward greater emphasis on economic development to strengthen Bolivian sovereignty.

Under Morales, writes NACLA blogger Emily Achtenberg,

Bolivia has experienced unprecedented economic prosperity, the benefits of which have largely been redistributed to the country’s poor and indigenous majority. Morales’s state-led economic policy, emphasizing the re-nationalization of strategic sectors divested by past neoliberal governments (including hydrocarbons, telecommunications, electricity, and some mines), has vastly increased revenues for public works, infrastructure improvements, social spending, and economic benefits.

While Bolivia’s GDP has almost tripled since 2005, when Morales was first elected, the minimum wage—up 20% last year alone—has increased at about the same rate. The population living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.25 per day) is down by 32%, the largest reduction in Latin America.

The government’s popular cash transfer programs for the elderly, school children, and pregnant mothers have reduced income inequality and infant mortality, while boosting school attendance and high school graduation rates. In short, Morales’s economic and redistributive policies have significantly improved the living standards of average Bolivians …

The 57-page Program for Government of the MAS-IPSP (the latter initials standing for “Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples,” the party’s full name), outlined 12 major objectives it hoped to achieve by 2020. Bolivian blogger Katu Arkonada summarizes:

The first is reduction of extreme poverty. While the Agenda Patriótica[2] projected the abolition of extreme poverty by 2025, the MAS hopes it will be reduced to 9% by 2020 nationwide, with its complete elimination a task still to be accomplished by 2025 in 100 of Bolivia’s 339 municipalities.

Combined with this, as the second objective in the MAS program, is universalization of basic services: 100% of urban areas with drinkable water and electricity and 80% with sewage systems, while in the rural areas the corresponding coverage would be 90% and 60% respectively. In addition, it sets the challenge of providing a million household gas connections, compared to the present 450,000 (up from 44,000 in 2005).

These goals are closely related to the third proposal in the MAS program, to provide 70% of the population with access to housing, education and health services by 2020, with coverage under a universal health plan.

The fourth proposal is defined as the technological and scientific revolution, which includes the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes with the goal of achieving the country’s energy independence.

This proposal is linked to the fifth, industrialization, to increase job creation through the plan to invest $1.8 billion in a complete petrochemical complex in Tarija, as previously announced, along with $3 billion in construction of a second petrochemical complex by 2020. These investments are in addition to the $800 million for development of lithium, one of the future energy sources for Bolivia, which has the world’s largest deposits of this resource.

The MAS program contains a clear commitment to achieving energy sovereignty for Bolivia, with the generation by 2020 of 1,672 MW of power, of which 1,000 will be exported to neighbouring countries, along with a diversification of the energy matrix. And while energy sovereignty is fundamental, so also is food sovereignty.

The sixth proposal in the MAS program sets the objective for 2020 of covering at least 60% of the domestic demand for wheat in addition to increasing geographical coverage under universal farm insurance from 175,000 hectares to 520,000 hectares.

This is combined with the seventh proposal, Water for Life, through development of water and irrigation operations along with forestry management and protection of biodiversity.

The eighth goal in the MAS program for 2020 is integration of the country through the construction of highways; air, rail and river transportation; and further construction of cableways in La Paz to reach other neighbourhoods and zones.

The ninth proposal in turn is to “take care of the present in order to ensure the future,” for example by increasing pensions and cash transfers linked to growth in the economy, along with many other objectives.

The tenth task for Vivir Bien is to guarantee a sovereign and safe country, with proposals to strengthen citizen security and the fight against narcotrafficking, two of the major preoccupations of the population along with corruption and the problems in the justice system, the eleventh proposal of the MAS.

Two novel proposals in this connection are to establish an Assembly for Revolution in Justice with social participation, and adoption of a Law of Constitutional Reform and Referendum for judicial change with the goal of achieving a real revolution in the justice system with popular participation …

Finally, the MAS calls for a world order for life and humanity in order to Vivir Bien: People’s Diplomacy as a challenge to pursue the horizon opened in 2014 with the G77+China summit, the Anti-Imperialist International Trade Union Conference and its political thesis, or the São Paulo Forum held in August in La Paz; reform of the United Nations; a new international financial architecture; return of access to the sea with sovereignty; for the defense of the coca leaf and the rights of the indigenous peoples.

A ‘victory for nationalization, anti-imperialism’

The programs of the other parties are available (in Spanish) here. A striking feature of the major right-wing parties that fielded presidential slates was their promise to establish closer relations with the United States. The UD, for example, favoured Bolivia’s entry to the Pacific Alliance, the trade and investment agreement with Peru, Chile, Mexico and Colombia that Washington has promoted, along with other bilateral agreements, as a response to Latin American rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The PDC sought “preferential” trade relations with North America and Europe, while the MSM called for “complementary” relations, not “confrontation” with Washington.

The right-wing parties also promoted law-and-order agendas to counter problems in the justice system and citizen insecurity in the face of urban crime. And Doria Medina of the UD indicated that he would radically reduce the taxes on the transnational petroleum companies which, since the 2006 nationalization of hydrocarbon resources, have operated under revised contracts with the government for refining and export services. Some 30% of state revenues are now derived from taxes and royalties on extractive resource industries.

In his election night victory speech to the thousands of Bolivians massed outside the presidential palace in La Paz, Evo Morales said this “new triumph of the Bolivian people” was a victory of “nationalization against privatization” and for “liberation, anticolonialism and anti-imperialism.” And he dedicated it in particular to “the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez.”

While the MAS continues to state that socialism is the ultimate horizon of its “democratic and cultural revolution,” in this campaign it was successful in its efforts to recruit members, and even candidates, from the opposition parties. As Emily Achtenberg reported:

Following the return to MAS of Abel Mamani, a former El Alto community leader and Minister of Water in the first Morales government who defected to the MSM in 2010, some 500 MSM party activists have transferred their loyalties to the MAS. At least 6 MSM congressional candidates (in El Alto and Santa Cruz) have abandoned their campaigns to join the MAS…..

At the same time, 600 militants from the conservative Democratic National Action Party (ADN) of Santa Cruz, formed by ex-military dictator Hugo Banzer, have been welcomed by the MAS leadership after renouncing their party affiliations. More than a few conservative opposition leaders from the old neoliberal parties have reinvented themselves as MAS legislative candidates, much to the chagrin of long-time progressive constituents who feel unrepresented by them.

The presence of these new recruits may well serve to reinforce the influence of the more conservative elements in the MAS.

New challenges, new debates

In a wide-ranging article first published in July, Katu Arkonada,[3] who is also a MAS militant, pointed to a number of disquieting features of the political landscape now unfolding in Bolivia. On the assumption that the MAS would win its coveted two-thirds majority in the legislature, Arkonada thought the party should work to eliminate the constitutional prohibition on further re-election of the president.

At present there is no substitute for Evo as the driving force behind the process of change; he crystallizes as no one else the popular classes of Bolivia, the indigenous campesino movement and its imaginaries,[4] aspirations and horizons. So it makes no sense to limit mandates for the one who best expresses the popular will…. Especially in an Assembly in which the opposition presence will be stronger and better prepared than the present one, seeking to build a leadership that can contest the presidency in 2019.

In this sense, some thought should be given to how to deal with a right wing that will recycle, transform and portray itself as closely as it can to Capriles in Venezuela.[5] The solution lies not in pragmatism or agreements with the opposition but by confrontation from the hard core of the social movements, unions and indigenous peoples that have driven forward the process of change.

Social movements that must continue on in creative balance with the government and the state. Movements that must be the base from which to deepen and radicalize the process, to transform the political and decolonizing revolution into an authentic social revolution in opposition to the attempts to stand pat and go no further, simply managing and profiting from what has been achieved up to now.

If indeed Morales is unable to run again, the analogy to the post-Chávez Venezuelan experience (and possibly to post-Lula Brazil) is particularly relevant. In any case, the MAS will have to give some careful thought to developing broader leadership structures, preferably by promoting experienced leaders from the social movements that are its base, in the same way that Morales himself, the leader of the coca farmers’ union, emerged as an outstanding leader in the decade before 2005.

Arkonada also noted another key task facing the government in the coming term. Pre-election polling indicated that among those most sympathetic to the opposition were young people.

And in this connection a crucial issue is what is to be done about the aspirations and demands of the middle class. When the margins of democracy are widened, people want more rights. Insofar as one to two million Bolivians are members of the middle class, unsatisfied demands increase in the cities, where the redistribution of wealth or improvements in living conditions are not viewed in the same way as in the countryside. Just as in Brazil, where the protests against the increase in transit fares did not occur in the Northeast, where there is more poverty but also more redistribution, but in São Paulo where they were led by dissatisfied middle-class youth, in Bolivia we have to be prepared for a similar stage of social conflict and demands.

And also to prepare for 2019 when the opposition will not only come with a Bolivian Capriles but the voters’ list will be swelled with a million new voters, many of them born around 2000 and who have not experienced neoliberalism or the water or gas wars. How can we win the support of a new generation, which thinks the presence of the state or the redistribution of wealth are permanent facts of life and not an achievement that can be reversed?

With its massive majority vote, the MAS may be tempted to sit on its laurels and be content with mere administration of government without taking advantage of the opportunity to deepen and radicalize its “process of change” in the coming years. However, although Bolivia is enjoying unprecedented economic stability and support for the government is high, there is little evidence that the social movements at the base of the MAS support are demobilizing — on the contrary.

In a post-election article, Alfredo Rada, the deputy minister for social movements in the government, seems to be addressing this possibility. He draws attention to the need to strengthen the “revolutionary social bloc” that he identifies as a key factor in the MAS victory:

The indigenous-worker-popular bloc can now continue advancing in the construction of revolutionary hegemony seeking to expand it to growing sectors of the population – all those who do not exploit alienated labour – mobilizing them in terms of transformations in the economic structure, not only in the property regime but fundamentally in the capitalist relations of production through social and political transformations that deepen democracy, incorporating participative and communitarian practices, and through cultural transformations that overcome the colonial and patriarchal ways of thinking and doing.

The program, understood as a dynamic construction from the permanent relation with the social movements, must be guided by the anticapitalist principles constantly alluded to in the speeches.

Rada notes the need in the coming period to deepen the agrarian reform. A “Congress of Land and Territory” called by the confederations of farmers, indigenous peoples and “intercultural communities” (newly settled farmers from the Altiplano), meeting in Santa Cruz in June, had denounced the land seizures being carried out by wealthy foreigners in alliance with Bolivian landlords, creating what they termed new forms of latifundio and a reconcentration of land ownership in the market. They “proposed a new Agrarian Revolution to strengthen campesino and communitarian forms of production aimed at achieving food sovereignty.” This, said Rada, “is of course incompatible with the demands on the government that are being made by the Santa Cruz bourgeoisie in their Eastern Agricultural Chamber of Commerce.”

Another major challenge, Rada notes, is the “fall in international prices” in the mining industry.

An immediate response is to increase the national capacity for smelting and refining, but that is insufficient. The state program of industrialization of mining now under way requires years to mature. With the support of the mining proletariat, there is an unavoidable need to limit control of the surplus by the transnational corporations, which are piling up enormous profits from our non-renewable natural resources and leaving only a minor share to the state treasury. As Evo says, it was the nationalizing tendencies that won at the ballot box over the privatizing tendencies.

Arkonada goes further, proposing that Bolivia must go beyond the “recovery of the state and redistribution as particular features of post-neoliberalism” and begin to think of “a new development model”.

Our extractivist economies must be reconceptualized for many reasons, among them the ecological limits of the planet, which cannot endure the capitalist economic growth of the so-called developing countries, much less the emerging powers like China or India with 1.3 billion inhabitants each; and the very limits of a capitalism in structural crisis that can only obtain surplus value or maintain the rate of profit by exploiting people and nature.

In this situation, the Bolivian contribution to how we rethink and combine the right to development and the rights of Mother Earth is fundamental for the coming debates. And complementary to this, while the nationalization of natural resources for recovery of our political and economic sovereignty was fundamental, and their industrialization phase is crucial at this time, we have to enter a third phase that will be accompanied by productive diversification in a way that complements the search for an alternative model of development (because alternatives to development continue to be a utopia in Bolivia, not to mention China or India).

Some immediate tasks

While debates on longer-terms perspectives in Bolivia are only beginning to open up, there are some immediate tasks facing the government that the election campaign served to highlight. One is the need to strengthen some key institutions of the state, starting with the electoral tribunal and the courts.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), a new body under the 2009 Constitution with responsibility for organizing and supervising all elections in Bolivia, was revealed to have serious deficiencies in its operations — among them a series of missed deadlines, confusion in the appointment of returning officers (jurados electorales), and above all the unexpected delays in counting the ballots and reporting the results, which the TSE attributed to technical deficiencies. However, its supervision clearly fell short of the required standard of care; even an embarrassing error in the election ballots — the official title of the state (Plurinational State of Bolivia) misprinted as “plurinominal,” referring to a category of deputy in the lower house — went unnoticed until election day!

The weakest state institutions, however, are the courts and the legal system as a whole, including other tribunals, a recognized problem that the opposition parties highlighted in their attempts to paint the MAS government itself as incompetent. A major complaint concerns the inordinate delays in adjudication of cases, both criminal and civil; for example, it is estimated that up to 80% or more of prison inmates denied bail have not been tried within a reasonable time, with resulting overcrowding of jails that has led to a number of riots in recent months. The government promises legislation to remedy what Vice-President Álvaro García Linera characterizes as a justice system “in a state of coma”; Minister of Justice Sandra Gutiérrez says it will even provide for jailing judges who provoke unnecessary delays in justice.

In recent days the ALP, which continues to meet without those members who sought re-election in the coming mandate, adopted a law that provides, inter alia, for a one-time only abandonment in certain circumstances of prosecutions that have not been tried within three months of indictment. It also abolishes the participation of elected citizen judges in sentencing tribunals, considered a prime cause of delays.

The next major electoral test of forces will come in March 2015 when elections are held in the departments and municipalities throughout Bolivia. The UD has already initiated meetings with other parties to put together opposition slates. The MAS, for its part, has scheduled meetings with the leaders of various social movements to plan their intervention.

And all eyes now are on the October 26 runoff election in neighboring Brazil, the powerhouse of South America, where President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party faces a tough struggle against Aecio Neves, the candidate of the right strategically aligned with the United States. That election, writes Bolivian sociologist Eduardo Paz Rada, will be a “major thermometer of regional politics.” Rousseff, he notes, seems to lack the commitment to Latin America that her predecessor Lula Da Silva had. But she does help to

maintain some hopes for an independent and common position among the countries in our region, in a context of crisis of western capitalism and the rise of distinct geographical and political blocs in the five continents.

Bolivia’s diplomatic relations with Brazil in recent years have not been the best, notwithstanding the importance of exports of Bolivian gas and the income they generate from São Paulo’s dependence on this energy source and the potential for horizontal integration and complementarity. However they would deteriorate even more should Neves win.

It is worth noting that the Brazilian states where Neves is winning are all on Bolivia’s eastern border, where the major transnational agribusiness firms and soy export landholders are located, allied with the Bolivian neoliberal and landlord politicians, and with a strong influence over them.

Also important in the regional geopolitics and balance of forces are the presidential elections in Uruguay, on October 26 as well, and the general election to be held next year in Argentina, with an uncertain outcome.

Indeed, we live in interesting — and critical — times.

[Thanks to Federico Fuentes and Art Young for their critical review and suggestions on an earlier draft.]


1] Each department elects four Senators. In the Chamber of Deputies, 63 of the seats are “uninominal,” each held by a deputy elected with the largest vote in the electoral district; another 60 seats are awarded to the parties according to their respective shares of the popular vote; and in each of seven departments indigenous voters who are not members of the dominant Aymara and Quechua peoples elect one member, making a total of 130 deputies. In 2011 the MAS lost its two-thirds majority when five indigenous deputies abandoned the party in protest against police repression of the TIPNIS march. For conflicting speculation on the final seat total for the MAS in the 2014 election, see “El MAS alcanza los dos tercios en la Asamblea Legislativa” and “Aún hay incertidumbre sobre los 2/3 del MAS en Asamblea.” The difference lies in whether the two minor parties, the MSM and the Verdes, both of which scored less than 3%, are entitled to one seat each; if not, those two seats go to the MAS. (It should be noted, perhaps, that the MSM candidates in the uninominal seats scored almost 8%.)

[2] The Agenda Patriótica 2025 comprises a platform of “13 Pillars for a Dignified and Sovereign Bolivia” presented by Evo Morales in a presidential address to the Legislature in January 2013. This year’s MAS election program is based on this document, the longer-term goals being set for 2025, the year of Bolivia’s bicentennial of independence from Spain.

[3] Katu Arkonada (born in Spain’s Basque country, 1978) is a former consultant in the Vice Ministry of Strategic Planning, and has worked in the Foreign Ministry of Bolivia. He has edited the publications Transiciones hacia el Vivir bien and Un Estado muchos pueblos, la construcción de la plurinacionalidad en Bolivia y Ecuador. He is a member of the Network of Intellectuals in Defense of Humanity, and a contributor to Le Monde diplomatique, Bolivian edition.

[4] “Imaginaries” refers to the way these classes conceive of their values, institutions, laws, and symbols.

[5] Henrique Capriles was the right-wing opposition’s candidate in the 2012 and 2013 elections in Venezuela, and came very close to defeating President Nicolas Maduro.