Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Indigenous Political Participation Key to Morales’ Lead

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Bolivian President Evo Morales is expected to be elected to a third term in office on October 12—and not by a small margin. A September 30 poll conducted by French global market research company Ipsos predicts that the incumbent will receive a comfortable 59 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, opposition candidates Samuel Doria Medina of the Unidad Demócrata (Democratic Unity—UD), Jorge Quiroga of the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Democratic Christian Party—PDC), Juan del Granado of the Movimiento Sin Miedo (Movement without Fear—MSM) and Fernando Vargas of the Partido Verde de Bolivia (Bolivian Green Party—PVB) are each expected to receive less than 15 percent of the vote individually.

Among opposition circles, speculation is rife that the increased number of eligible Bolivian voters (totaling 6.5 million) and the alleged pro-Morales bias of the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal) indicate a fraudulent electoral process. Doria Medina, earning an estimated 13 percent of the vote in the recent Ipsos poll, has also claimed that the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism—MAS) government is manipulating television advertising allocation in favor of the president.

“They have aired up to 60 negative spots on television against us, and when we tried to respond to them with our own spots, the Electoral Tribunal denied us permission,” Doria Medina told Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald in September. “Likewise, we put campaign signs on the streets, and the government ordered police to remove them. The government has a monopoly of public signs,” Medina said.

However, opposition members attempting to make sense of Morales’ expected win should look no further than the president’s overwhelming support from the country’s historically marginalized Aymara and Quechua populations, which form an important percentage of Bolivia’s population. Morales’ presidency has been marked by mass Indigenous political participation in government affairs, an achievement unheard of in previous administrations.

Morales, who first took office in 2006 as Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, appointed Bolivian Minister of Education Roberto Iván Aguilar in 2008 to spearhead the implementation of a new national curriculum that promotes the teaching of Indigenous political and social movements in Latin America.  In 2009, he appointed renowned Indigenous folk singer Zulma Yugar as Minister of Culture to promote Indigenous culture and political inclusiveness in his second term (Yugar was replaced by Elizabeth Salguero in 2011 and Pablo César Groux in 2012). Morales also made news in 2010 for appointing 10 female cabinet ministers, three of them Indigenous.

One important initiative promoted by the MAS administration was a government-funded national literacy program, targeting the most impoverished sectors of Aymara and Quechua society, supported with the assistance of teachers and advisers from Venezuela and Cuba. According to a 2009 UNESCO report on Bolivia and literacy, 13.7 percent of the country’s population was illiterate from the end of 2006 to mid-2007—a figure that dropped to 3.8 percent by July 2014, when UNESCO declared the country free of illiteracy (nations must maintain an illiteracy rate below 4 percent to maintain that title). Now that a significant portion of Indigenous Bolivians can read and write, voting, campaigning and other forms of political participation are more accessible to them.

Morales has also advocated for Indigenous cultural beliefs by supporting the decriminalization of the coca leaf, a sacred plant for the Aymara and Quechua. Morales, a former coca leaf grower, formally withdrew from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because it obligated countries to abolish the practice of chewing coca leaves.  Yet in 2013, Bolivia became a party to the Convention once again, after members granted Bolivia an exception to permit the domestic chewing of the coca leaf. Morales also uses his presidency of the Group of 77, a UN coalition for developing countries, to advocate for the removal the coca leaf from the list of prohibited substances.

Moreover, the Indigenous president oversaw the implementation of a policy requiring all civil servants to learn Aymara, Quechua or Guaraní (predominately spoken in the country’s southeastern section bordering Paraguay). The policy was put in place after former Education and Culture Minister Félix Patzi, who was appointed by Morales in 2006, declared it an “embarrassment” that some Bolivians had little familiarity with Indigenous languages.

Morales’ success in including Indigenous Bolivians in political decision-making processes is undeniable and should be taken into account—along with reducing income inequality and developing the country’s burgeoning hydrocarbon industry—when explaining his lead in preliminary election polls. While the UD, PDC, MSM and PVB candidates’ stances toward Morales’ political and social inclusion efforts are varied, their efforts to garner Aymara and Quechua votes may be overshadowed by the incumbent’s favorable eight-year record of including Indigenous Bolivians in national politics.

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