Correction appended below
Following Bolivia’s worst political crisis in more than a decade, many observers hoped that the upcoming May 3 elections would allow the country to turn the page. But former president Evo Morales continues to loom large over the race, making it hard for candidates to articulate a unifying vision for the future.
“Morales casts a long shadow that’s going to contaminate the debate and the political landscape,” said María Teresa Zegada, a sociologist and political analyst.
Morales left the country in November after a disputed presidential election sparked countrywide protests and led the military to withdraw their support of him. Morales’ exit from office after nearly 14 years was labeled a coup by some and to others, a consequence of a power grab. For others it was both. Though he’s not running in the do-over election, Morales’ legacy – and the controversy over his final days in office – will likely weigh heavily on voters. His recent travels from Argentina to Cuba for “health reasons,” as well as his effort to run for a seat in congress from outside the country, have also kept him front and center in the run-up to May’s vote.
The result is a divided electorate and polarizing group of candidates. And it’s more than a simple left-versus-right divide. Morales’ Movement toward Socialism (MAS) is fielding a single candidate, but divisions on the left mean its coalition is weaker than in past elections. Meanwhile, several candidates on the center and right are clashing for the mantle of the anti-MAS vote.
“Political fragmentation will be the defining factor in the election,” said Rodrigo Riaza, a Bolivia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Polarization could thus sidetrack a healthy debate about how the next government will reinvigorate Bolivia’s sluggish economy, which is weighed down by declining exports and macroeconomic imbalances. High government spending continued after commodity prices began falling in 2014, pushing the fiscal deficit to roughly 8% of GDP. The current account deficit and an overvalued exchange rate have in turn depleted the country’s international reserves. The World Bank estimates that GDP grew 2.2% in 2019, which, while above the regional average, would be Bolivia’s slowest growth rate in years.
“Big political issues, like how the economy should be run, or what should be done about the environment, aren’t on the agenda – and they should be,” said Jim Shultz, who serves as the executive director of the Democracy Center and lived in Bolivia for 19 years.
Instead, the parties hoping to close the book on Morales “will try above all to position themselves against the MAS and compete to be the most anti-MAS,” said Juan Antonio Morales, Bolivia’s central bank president from 1996 to 2006. “Economic issues, above all sensitive topics like exchange rate policy and fuel subsidies, will be secondary to issues of (political) identity.
The exception to the anti-MAS trend will be Luis Arce, Evo Morales’ hand-picked candidate who was economy minister for most of the former president’s nearly 14 years in office. Arce is credited with helping cut the poverty rate by over 20 percentage points during Morales’ three terms in office, while averaging an annual GDP growth rate of nearly 5%.
“Arce is considered the father of Bolivia’s ‘economic miracle’ and may want to bring the debate to the turf where he believes he’s strongest,” Juan Antonio Morales told AQ.
But Arce’s image as Evo Morales’ heir apparent could overshadow other factors, which may attract some voters and dispel others. The former president tapped Arce as MAS’s candidate while in Argentina, overriding the party’s decision to nominate David Choquehuanca, who was Morales’ foreign minister for 11 years. Choquehuanca will now run to be Arce’s vice president.
Currently, Arce leads the polls, registering 31.6% support in a Red Uno poll released Feb. 16. Arce’s lead is thanks in part to a dispersal of support among the anti-MAS candidates, a tendency that has sunk the opposition’s attempts to defeat MAS in the past.
It was this disunity that the country’s interim president Jeanine Áñez said she wanted to avoid after taking office in November and pledging not to run. But in January Áñez said the failure of the anti-MAS opposition to unify was why she ultimately decided to run.
Áñez’s presidency, and her entrance to the race, have been particularly polarizing. Her government has taken to removing Morales’ name and images from buildings and institutions across the country, and has also begun investigating Morales’ allies for corruption, including Arce. Her competition in the race includes another divisive figure: Luis Fernando Camacho, an activist and businessman who led protests against Morales in November. Both Áñez and Camacho have aligned their anti-Evo politics with their religion, for example, stating a desire to give Catholicism a higher standing in government.
Camacho and Áñez are one of seven candidates running to defeat the MAS. Among them are som familiar names, including Carlos Mesa and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, both former vice presidents who later took over for presidents who left office in the early 2000s. Mesa heads into this election after being the lead opposition candidate in last year’s contested election, running on a platform of reversing Morales’ attacks on democracy. Quiroga, who has a high-profile outside of Bolivia and close ties to the U.S., may struggle with the image of being out of touch with average Bolivians.
But unlike last year’s election, May’s will feature a series of presidential debates, in which Quiroga’s technocratic experience could come in handy – and will provide a platform for all the candidates to present their plans for getting the country on the right track.
Unfortunately, “people don’t read policy proposals, they care about more superficial things,” said Evelyn Callapino Guarachi, a political scientist at Domingo Savio Private University. Because of that, “leaders are leaning on a discourse of blaming one another, rather than making proposals that could have medium- and long-term impact.”
Callapino says she sees candidates playing to politics of hate in the race, pointing to Áñez recently referring to Morales’ supporters as “savages.”
“I think it’s a grave error,” Callapino told AQ.
Unfortunately, playing to voters’ fears may be more potent in this year’s race than articulating a robust policy platform, said Shultz of the Democracy Center.
That’s especially true, he said, with middle-class critics of Morales who have fresh memories of October’s post-election violence and see the MAS’s return as Morales’ return.
“For those folks, they will vote for whoever it takes to keep Morales from getting power again, because they are motivated by fear,” Shultz said.
Such fear could encourage a divisive outcome to the race. Brazil’s election in 2018 may offer some similarities. Then, with a popular former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, barred from running, many voters passed on his hand-picked candidate and opted instead for the outsider who fostered rage over the alleged corruption of Lula and his party. In Bolivia, there may be temptation to follow such a route. Conservative politicians like Camacho and the Korean-Bolivian evangelical pastor Chi Hyun Chung, another candidate in this year’s race, have already won comparisons to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. If division becomes the winning theme of this year’s election, a more unified country may be put on hold.
A previous version of this article attributed a 2.2% GDP growth estimate to the International Monetary Fund. The estimate is from the World Bank.
Tags: Bolivia politics, Jeanine Áñez