Uncertainty is the only certainty heading into Bolivia’s Oct. 20 presidential election. A rollercoaster campaign has, at different stages, seen both President Evo Morales and his nearest challenger, Carlos Mesa, appear headed for victory.
This picture has become even more muddled as election day draws near. But with challenges looming over the economy, the biggest question mark for Bolivia will be what comes next, no matter who wins in October.
Early this year, Mesa, himself a former president, seemed like he could win the election with room to spare. Morales’ image had been tarnished among much of the electorate due to accusations of corruption and mismanagement, and public anger over his decision to run for a legally dubious fourth term despite losing a referendum on the issue in 2016.
But as the public came to terms with Morales’ behavior, opinion started to soften. Polls over the summer predicted Morales would earn more than 40% of votes and finish some 10 points ahead of second place, thus avoiding a second-round runoff.
That no longer appears to be the case. New polls are again giving Mesa hope of making a second round – which, if it happens, could unite the opposition against Morales’ candidacy.
There are several reasons for this, but the most immediate seems to be the toll on the government from recent fires in the Bolivian Amazon – specifically those in the Chiquitania region, which have affected an area almost as extensive as fires on the Brazilian side. So far, over four million hectares have burned in an environmental crisis that the government has failed to contain. Only the rains in early October helped slow the flames.
In Santa Cruz, the region most affected by the fires, Morales has seen his support decline, impacting voter intentions nationwide. A survey published on Sept. 29 by newspaper Página Siete, considered one of the country’s most reliable, put Morales at 33% against 26% for Mesa, with Oscar Ortiz, another challenger, following far behind at 9%. Such a result would lead to a second round, which the Página Siete poll suggested Mesa would win.
A Korean-born Methodist pastor, Chi Hyun Chung, of conservative ideas, has also begun to appear in the polls and it is believed he could draw some of Morales’ votes. Many of the rural and indigenous voters who provide the president’s base are also members of Protestant churches.
An unusually high rate of undecided voters, sitting somewhere between 20% and 30%, depending on the poll, adds to the uncertainty. The ruling party, apparently fearful of losing an election for the first time since 2005, has taken an increasingly negative tone in its attacks on Mesa, which some analysts believe suggests the government itself is getting nervous.
If that’s the case, it’s not hard to see why. Morales is accustomed to winning elections with more than 60% of the vote. Although he is still the strongest politician in the country, he is now fighting tooth and nail to reach 40% and guarantee that the difference between himself and the runner-up is above 10 percentage points.
Many in the opposition believe that if Morales manages to win now he may spend a lifetime in power. His government controls most of the country’s media and has used public funds to support his campaign, putting the opposition at a distinct disadvantage. Fears of possible fraud, considering that the electoral court has no autonomy, are also widespread, while the chief prosecutor’s office has accused dozens of opposition politicians, and arrested several of them, over various offenses, with the apparent purpose of intimidating critics of the regime.
The key question facing Bolivian society now is what will happen to the economy and the political system after Jan. 22, when either Morales or Mesa take the oath of office. It’s unlikely that the winner will hold majorities in both houses of Congress, which would be something of a new experience for Bolivians; Morales has consistently controlled two-thirds of the votes in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies since 2009.
Meanwhile, the Bolivian economy, which has grown solidly over the last decade, could be entering a difficult phase. Its fiscal deficit is 7.8% and the trade deficit is 4%. Since exports of natural gas to Brazil have decreased, fiscal revenues are down and the country has had difficulties producing gasoline from extracted gas. That’s meant increased imports of gasoline, which is sold on the domestic market at half price. These subsidies, with today’s high fiscal deficit, will become increasingly difficult to finance.
Whoever wins in October will have to face these facts. The picture may be even more complicated for Mesa, who would at the same time have to deal with social movements that are highly active in Bolivia and provide Morales’ support base. Mesa would also have to negotiate agreements with a sector he has kept at a distance during the campaign: agribusiness in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s economic engine. The presence of these two flanks – social movements and the agribusiness lobby – suggest a repeat of the difficulties that marked Mesa’s rule from 2003 to 2005, when he was forced to resign, beginning the cycle dominated by Morales.
Nevertheless, the October elections are the first in which an opposition candidate has an actual chance of winning since 2005. If this happens, Bolivia could be rerouted toward the path of full democracy.
Peñaranda is a Bolivian journalist and directs the Brújula Digital news portal. In 2015 he won the Maria Moors Cabot Award, awarded by Columbia University.