Elections in Bolivia: Some Keys to Evo Morales’s Victory

October 12, 2016

The elections held on October 12th in Bolivia confirmed the hegemony of the Movement toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo – MAS) and showed that Evo Morales’ leadership remains strong after his eight years in office, an intrinsically relevant fact in a country known for its political, economic and social instability. Evo Morales and his running mate Álvaro García Linera were supported by 61.36% of the votes compared to 24.23% for the Democratic Unity (Unidad Democrática - UD), headed by politician and businessman Samuel Doria Medina, and to 9.04% for the former President Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, who ran for the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano). In La Paz, the seat of government, the ruling party won by a margin of 68.92% to 14.75% for the UD. With these results, the MAS has managed not only to retain the two thirds of the Congress it has had since 2009, but also, a politically and symbolically significant result, to win in Santa Cruz -a formerly opposing region located in the agro-industrial East of the country- with almost 50% of the votes.

In general terms, the election results show a drop in votes for the MAS in the Andean West –but from exceptionally high previous levels–, parallel to an increase in the East. For example, in La Paz, the MAS had obtained 80.28% in 2009, which means it went down more than 10 points. However, given the extraordinary result of that year, the present decrease did not prevent the party from “keeping it all” this time, that is, all of the uninominal representatives and the four senators running in La Paz. The same happened in regions like Oruro and Potosí. While in 2009 the epics of the fight against the autonomist regions –accused of promoting separatism and counter-revolutionary coups– rallied votes that probably exceeded those supporting Evo Morales in normal circumstances, on October 12th the secure victory relaxed his party’s fighting efforts, and the political mystique moved to the formerly opposing regions.

But ideology is not the only reason for the ruling party's victory in Santa Cruz (at present, only the department of Beni maintains an opposing stance, though the MAS obtained over 40% of the votes cast there), fostered by former Minister of Government Carlos Romero. Here, Evo Morales' party applied a pragmatic policy allowing entry to the MAS of a small group of activists from the rightwing Nationalist Democratic Action (Acción Democrática Nacionalista – ADN, the party founded by General Hugo Bánzer), and of congresswoman Jessica Echeverría, who had successively belonged to various rightwing groups –she had even been elected as Tuto Quiroga’s spokeswoman a few days before– and in 2008 was part of the radical “cruceñismo”. Upon switching to the ruling party, this evangelic representative apologized for "having incited hatred" in those times of political polarization.

Nowadays, the situation is significantly different from that of 2008/2009, when Santa Cruz was at war against La Paz. In a context of economic growth, and following the defeat of the more radical sectors, the Government approached the business community with an implicit agreement by which business people recognize the legitimacy of the president, and he recognizes the legitimacy of the Santa Cruz model of capitalism. This had the effect of consolidating, after a first period of polarization and confrontation, the “negotiated way out” proposed by García Linera when he ran for the vice-presidency in 2005.


Change and Decolonization

In these eight years of Morales' administration, several radical notions of the good society have been left aside in the Democratic and Cultural Revolution, giving rise to some dissents voices that have failed to result in votes. Radical indigenism, communitarianism, the diffuse “living well” (suma qamaña), the plurinational views or decolonization visions associated with the “otherness” of the indigenous world or with its anti-capitalist potential, have all weakened and given way to the priority of public management and to more market-friendly ways of decolonizing. Additionally, the population census of 2012 showed some seemingly paradoxical data: while in 2001 62% of Bolivians over the age of 15 identified themselves as indigenous, now only 42% did so (an important fact given that the previous census had provided statistic and moral support to all the struggles carried on since the early 2000s).

There are many factors that may have caused such identity shift, including a change of terms in the pertaining question, where “native indigenous” was replaced by “peasant-native-indigenous” as expressed in the new Constitution, just at a time when Bolivia is a predominantly urban country. Equally important is the fact that in 2001 the indigenous identity challenged the established order while nowadays it is official, even when mixed-raced urban Bolivia doesn't always feel comfortable with such State indigenism.

Finally, most people in Bolivia are “partly” indigenous and “partly” mixed-raced, so variability in identities is not uncommon, especially among the Quechua people, who are the majority. The Quechuas lack, as pointed out by Pablo Quisbert and Vincent Nicolas in their recent book Pachakuti: El retorno de la nación1, such ethno-national symbols or heroes as the Aymaras have with Tupac Katari or the rainbow flag called wiphala. What is essentially Quechua is rather a language that unites various local "nations".

Evo manifested his surprise at the census results, but considered them a secondary issue and remarked that anyway, as is the case when throwing dice, "what you see is what you score.” Vice-President Álvaro García Linera then wrote a text titled Nación y Mestizaje (Nation and Miscegenation) defending plurinationality.2 But Evo, who knows how to “score” in cacho, a popular game in Bolivia, also knows how to make adjustments in his campaigns with the instinct of an experienced union leader.

This context fostered a shift in the MAS towards the proposal of technological advancement as the main focus of its electoral campaign: the cable-car transport between La Paz and El Alto, the satellite named Tupac Katari, the promise of a “city of knowledge” in Cochabamba, and even the controversial proposal of advancing towards nuclear power, were all part of the party’s program. It also included re-launching the construction of the road running across the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Sécure, which was suspended in 2012 due to protests against the project.


Neo-Developmentalist Perspectives

The 2014 electoral campaign was focused on the country’s economy, which has grown steadily during the last eight years by means of a combination of economic nationalism (strengthening of the State) and fiscal caution –commended by media such as the New York Times and even by libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen[3]-. It’s worth recalling that when a leftwing government once ruled in Bolivia (1982-1985), it was forced to leave office early as a result of a brutal hyperinflation that generated a social trauma. The memory of that circumstance, coupled with Evo’s peasant subjectivity expressed in his aversion to debts and a tendency to "keep the money under the mattress," explains why Bolivia today has 15.000 billion dollars in international reserves, equivalent to 51% of the GDP. The Minister of Economy, Luis Arce, has made sure since the very first day of Evo’s administration that the macro variables are kept in order.

The economy is the factor that contributed to operate what analyst Fernando Molina characterized as the political "depolarization" in the country.4 At the same time, this economic stability –which Evo Morales showcased as the main reason to vote for the MAS– poses a sort of division in the Bolivarian bloc between Bolivia and Ecuador, on the one hand, and Venezuela on the other, as well as an overall weakening of the “XXI Century Socialism" and a strengthening of neo-developmentalist perspectives. The content of this narrative –taken in a sense not necessarily coincidental with that of Carlos Bresser Pereira, the Brazilian who created the concept– was defined very clearly by Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who some time ago highly praised the Israeli model of innovation, development and business-minded vision, and criticized "conservative leftwing movements" and businesspeople who are reluctant to take risks (his speech can be viewed on YouTube under the title "Israel should be an example for us").

The new phase of post-polarization was ratified at the polls: the second place in the national election was taken by a center-rightwing alternative whose leaders tried to convince Bolivians that they would keep the “good” things done by the MAS, and avoided any talk about restoring the old order.5 Another effect of the new scenario is that two former presidents (Carlos Mesa and Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé) have accepted Morales’ proposal to participate in the sea-access claim against Chile, the former as an international spokesman for the Bolivian position and the latter as Ambassador in the Netherlands and coordinator of the lawsuit in the International Court of The Hague. 

The success of the “Evo model” also reaches the very structure of the MAS, made up by an alliance of different social, territorial, labor and ethnic sectors, which operates in exactly the same (corporate) mode of exercising citizenship as most of the Bolivian society.6 For many social sectors, the MAS’ electoral lists –prepared with a mixture of grass-root participation and top-level decision-making- represent a fairly efficient way of having access to the State and political "self-representation". This is why, among other things, those candidates from the intellectual strata (Raúl Prada, Alejandro Almaraz, etc.) who intended to “redirect the process of change”, and appealed for that purpose to the “social movements”, didn’t get good results.

Recently, García Linera described the current period, and defended the role of the State and a somewhat pragmatic view: “Insofar as no (community) initiatives are being set forth by the society, we have to work with what is there, and that is the business leaders, who must gain strength, grow and generate more wealth. You should remove that chip which tells you that at any time the government will stage a coup and nationalize everything. That is not going to happen, that has failed, and that is not socialism; nationalizing the means of production led to a sort of spurious, failed socialism. We will not repeat that mistake. We will not replicate the UDP [Unidad Democrática y Popular] of 1984, we will not replicate the Soviet Union.”

He then referred to the “inclusion of the adversary” in the project: “If a project remains enclosed in its original nucleus, this means domination and imposition. To open it so much that other sectors can take over and prevail will always carry the risk of hegemony, and this is why it's a battle. When you integrate your opponent into your universal project, [he] will cease to stay entrenched in his own domain and will no longer be able to generate counter-power. The risk lies in you having an opponent so skillful and intelligent that from within your project he can turn his own into the hegemon of the universal project”.7

The next electoral battle is coming up soon: in March 2015, mayors and governors will be elected. This time, the opposition expects to get better results, at least in part, considering that local voting often has a different logic from national elections. In this context, the mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla (42 years old), will attempt to emerge as a future leader of the opposition. Using the fact that his (centre-leftwing) party, the Movement without Fear (Movimiento sin Miedo), lost its legal capacity to participate in the elections due to the meager results obtained in October 12th, Revilla founded a new party called SOL.bo -Sovereignty and Freedom- (Soberanía y Libertad) and thereby got rid of the by now cumbersome leadership of Juan del Granado. If he beats the MAS and is reelected, Revilla might be one of the new presidential candidates by 2019. Of course, there’s still a long way to go. Evo Morales has to decide whether he will use his party’s two-thirds of parliamentary representation in order to amend the constitution so as to allow indefinite reelection. We shall see if the current economic boom endures given the ups and downs of the prices of raw materials that have weighed on  the exports of a country with  apparently inexhaustible resources for the last four centuries.  


1 Vincent Nicolas and Pablo Quisbert: Pachakuti: El retorno de la nación. Estudio comparativo del imaginario de nación de la Revolución Nacional y del Estado Plurinacional, La Paz, Pieb, 2014

2 Álvaro García Linera, Nación y Mestizaje, La Paz, Vicepresidencia del Estado, September 2013. Available at: http://www.vicepresidencia.gob.bo/IMG/pdf/nación_y_mestizaje.pdf

3 William Neuman, “Turnabout in Bolivia as Economy Rises From Instability, New York Times, 16/2/2014, Tyler Cowen, “Why I endorsed Evo Morales”, Marginal Revolution, 2/9/2014.

4 Fernando Molina, “Elecciones bolivianas, el fin de la polarización”, Infolatam, 27/9/2014.

5 See: Fernando Molina, “La oposición boliviana, entre la ‘política de la fe’ y la ‘política del escepticismo”, Nueva Sociedad, Nº255, November-December, 2014.

6 Pablo Stefanoni y Hervé Do Alto: “El MAS: las ambivalencias de la democracia corporativa”, in Luis Alberto García Orellana and Fernando Luis García Yapur (ed.), Mutaciones del campo político en Bolivia, La Paz, PNUD, 2010.

7 Pablo Ortiz and Mónica Salvatierra, El Deber, 16/11/2014.



About Author(s)

Pablo A. Stefanoni
Doctor en Historia (FFyL-UBA). Miembro del Centro de Historia Intelectual -Universidad Nacional de Quilmes. Jefe de redacción de la revista Nueva Sociedad. Coautor de Debatir Bolivia. Perspectivas de un proceso de descolonización (Taurus, 2010) y de Los inconformistas del Centenario. Intelectuales, socialismo y nación en una Bolivia en crisis (1925-1939) (Plural, en prensa).