By Paola De Anda Mota-
On October 19th despite the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Bolivians went out to choose their next president and vice-president, as well as their senators, deputies and superstate representatives. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), participation reached a new record of 87%- the country usually has an 80% participation average. The clear winner with 55% of the vote was Luis Arce Catacora, beating his main opponent Carlos Meza in the first round. Luis Arce was ex-minister of economy for Evo Morales, the ex-president that had to flee the country last year (2019), he is also a member of the leftist party founded by Evo Morales: Movement for Socialism (MAS). This result was long-awaited as the election had to be postponed twice due to the sanitary crisis. The election was announced following the social turmoil of 2019 that led to Evo Morales quitting, the establishment of Jeanine Añez as President ad interim and the apparent demise of the MAS party (See LatAm Dialogue’s previous article on this “The MAS demise: the reasons for the fall and the legacy for a new Bolivia” for further insight on these events).
The current scenario was hard to imagine in November 2019, when both the police and the military withdrew support for Evo Morales and MAS after 21 days of intense civilian protests. However, the world is not the same it was a year ago. The pandemic has disrupted lives all over the globe and has affected countries both socially and economically, Bolivia is no exception. This article will analyze the conditions that allowed the MAS to regain power despite their apparent collapse, and the challenges looking forward.
What allowed the MAS to come back to power?
The reasons for Arce´s victory could be divided in two: firstly, the strengths and advantages of both the MAS and Arce and secondly, the mistakes made by the transition government.
Arce’s strength is his economic profile. While there are many varying opinions about Morales’ presidency, there is large consensus about the fact that he managed to conjure up the economic growth that Bolivia desperately needed. Under Arce’s supervision, key industries such as mining, gas and telecommunications were nationalized and the national markets and the currency stabilised. These kinds of economic growth and advancements could be seen as especially beneficial in the midst of a world pandemic when quarantine measures are being especially hard on Bolivia, partially due to the country’s relatively large informal economy.
Arce has also largely benefitted from the strong base of support the already MAS had. It should not be forgotten that when Morales resigned, a large part of the population rooted for him and claimed Añez’s take over was a coup. This same group was very harshly repressed by the transition government, resulting in dozens of deaths and further political polarisation in the country. Moreover, the MAS also has strong support among indigenous groups that had long been overlooked and underrepresented before they came to power. Evo Morales was the first indigenous president helping him gain strong and lasting support from indigenous communities in Bolivia.
Regarding the mistakes made by Añez transition government, there are two clear ones. Firstly, corruption scandals and secondly, their failure to address the pandemic. The worst corruption scandal of the year happened when the health minister was detained and accused of inflating the price of medical equipment meant to deal with COVID-19 crisis. This led to a large reduction in support for Añez and her government.
The failure to address the pandemic became evident not only when Añez herself became infected, but also when Bolivia became the country in the world with the third-highest number of cases per 1 million people. Devastating images of hundreds of bodies in the streets of La Paz and Santa Cruz, two of Bolivia’s largest cities, circulated the media in July, adding to the population’s sense of unease.
In sum, Luis Arce’s recent victory was possible because of his strengths and because of the mistakes made by the opposition/transition government. Another factor that may have contributed is the fear of instability and uncertainty that a new kind of government means (especially after the bad experience with Añez’s government). It is understandable that in the current context the population seeks stability and experience, characteristics that the MAS and specifically Luis Arce can provide the population with.
So far, we have analyzed the factors that allowed Luis Arce and MAS to win this historic election in Bolivia. However, this victory also entails new challenges for Arce and his party. While it is true that he was the undeniable winner, there is still 46% of the population that did not vote for him as president; he will have to deal with political polarization and its consequences. The vote against him was concentrated in the large cities and such a strong opposition will be a challenge when the time comes to make important economic decisions. Additionally, today’s Bolivia is very different from the Bolivia of ten years ago, Mesas’ (Acre’s opposition) has the capacity to be stronger his predecessors. Nonetheless, Arce has addressed the issue declaring that his government will be for everyone and upon his election stated: “We are starting a new era in our history, we want to do it with a government that is for everyone, without discrimination of any nature. Our government will, in every moment, seek to rebuild the nation in unity and to live in peace.”
Moreover, Arce is used to being in government during times of prosperity, as during most of his time as minister of economy the country benefitted from a boom in raw materials. Governing in a crisis caused not only by the pandemic but also by the 8% deficit that he left himself will be a new challenge for him.
Managing the sanitary will not be an easy task either. Since the situation was poorly managed from the beginning there are, at the time of writing, already over 144 thousand cases in Bolivia. The way Arce decides to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic will mark the first months (probably even the first year) of his presidency.
It should also be noted that not all challenges will be exogenous, one, in particular, will come from within his own party: Evo Morales. It has been largely questioned how much influence Morales will have during Arce’s presidency. Evo is the historic leader of the MAS, and following his exile, he has stayed active in the country’s politics through Twitter. While there is consensus that Arce showed autonomy from the former leader during his campaign, whether Morales will agree to play a secondary role is still debatable as the ex-president is known for having a strong temper and not accepting criticism well. It is also important to remember that Evo is the one who made Arce’s candidacy possible by endorsing him. Morales was even named chief of Arce’s electoral campaign, although he never really took on a significant role. Arce has, however, assured the population that his government will be his own, and that if Morales is willing to help, he will be welcomed, but that he will not control him. The relationship between Arce and Morales will be a complicated one- Arce owes his win to both the MAS and to Evo Morales himself and without them he would not have been a significant candidate.
In conclusion, Luis Arce is now the legitimate leader Bolivia needed to resolve its democratic issues. A series of mechanisms and conditions facilitated his road to the presidency: the pandemic, political polarization, and social and economic unease. However, these same things will be challenges for his presidency. Arce will have to find the way to separate himself from Morales’ shadow without losing his base and while fighting a global pandemic as well as the economic crisis that comes with it. And while Arce has managed to overcome many obstacles, the ones ahead do not seem any easier.
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