The Movement towards Socialism (MAS in Spanish) has won the Bolivian elections in the first round this October 2020. Two exit polls (by Ciesmori and Tu Voto Cuenta) based on different samples concluded that Luis (“Lucho”) Arce and David Choquehuanca had obtained more than 50% of the votes, with a lead of more than 20% over the second place candidate, Carlos Mesa of Citizens Community (CC). We await the results of the official count that will be available on Wednesday or Thursday, but don’t expect a substantive change in the trend of the results of these two exit polls.
Why did Lucho and David won?
1) The disastrous short-lived government of Jeanine Añez. In less than a year Añez’s government was involved in several cases of corruption and nepotism in the midst of a pandemic. Management of the health crisis and the economy was disastrous. In the midst of the people’s suffering, old-school politicians recently returned to power didn’t waste a second in illicitly enriching themselves. In the style of the previous MAS government, anyone who initiated investigations against Añez’s Minister Murillo or Añez’ entourage was fired and actively persecuted. In 10 months, there were countless changes brought against Ministers and other public authorities. The Añez government provided glaring evidence that an opposition government could be even worse than the MAS, whose credibility was in tatters from its own cases of corruption.
2) The pandemic aggravated the economic crisis that was already underway. Monetary stability was maintained, but the real economy suffered a severe blow that fell mainly on people who live from day to day in the informal economy. There were real fears that the economic situation will worsen, alongside hopes that with a new MAS government headed by its former finance minister, the economic bonanza and cash transfers of years past would return.
3) The 2020 election was not a choice between political platforms, but between fears and socio-cultural identifications. The platforms of MAS and CC have more commonalities than differences, and in general they are unknown to the voters. Virulent right-wing attacks by Añez and Murillo from government and right-wing candidate Camacho both allowed MAS portray itself as a victim, and aroused deep fears among broad sectors of the population with indigenous roots that discrimination against them would grow. The right wing bet voters fears of Evo Morales the return. On the other hand, the MAS campaign fueled fear of the return of the racist neoliberal right and economic instability. Throughout, Mesa and CC neither understood nor reached out to popular or indigenous sectors.
4) The Añez government, far from restoring the rule of law or clarifying serious events, like the violent confrontations and deaths in Senkata and Sacaba, used the judicial system to pursue revenge. Far from insisting on a reconciliation process or a minimal agreement between all the political forces to confront the pandemic, her government – like its predecessor – worked to perpetuate itself in power by using public resources to support a failing run for the presidency.
5) The ecocide of 2019 was repeated in 2020 with the burning of millions of hectares of forests. Far from repealing the MAS’s executive orders which f the fires, the Añez government threw more fuel on the flames through giving even greater benefits to the agribusiness sector including expedited procedures for the approval of GMOs, unlimited export of agricultural products that drive deforestation, and incentives for expanding commercial plantations of eucalyptus and other mono-crops. Morales’ MAS government was indeed allied to the agribusiness sector, which it had given broad concessions for years before the change in government. The Añez government was not only allied to agribusiness, it was deeply entrenched in the business themselves and directly represented agribusiness interests in pursuing new, even more expansive policies.
6) Carlos Mesa and CC bet on inertia. Mesa and CC believed that the conditions surrounding the 2019 elections remained largely intact: polarization around the possible reelection of Evo Morales would continue to push voters to CC, more in opposition to the-MAS than any attachment to CC’s platform. The pandemic, along with the economic, social and environmental crises did not lead CC to rethink their strategy, or engage the popular organizations. As in 2019, CC expected that at the last-minute people would again vote for them. This did not happen, the context and actors having changed.
7) MAS did not win because of Evo, but in spite of Evo. Evo sought to marginalize David Choquehuanca, his former Minister of Foreign Affairs and was the candidate supported and promoted by the indigenous social organizations of the Andean highlands and valleys. The overwhelming triumph of the MAS was in the rural areas of these regions was largely due to David’s candidacy. The results would have been quite different if the MAS had gone with the Lucho Arce-Diego Pari formula, which Evo Morales had sought to impose from exile in Argentina. After almost a decade, the indigenous social organizations of the highlands and the valleys made a democratic decision from the grassroots in the choice of their candidates, which they only half won. They originally pushed for David as their candidate for President, against Evo and his allies pushing from above to disenfranchise David. The effort forced a compromise with Evo and his allies, resulting in the Lucho Arce President / David Choquehuanca Vice President formula. The result of the 2020 elections show that if the MAS had not insisted on the unconstitutional reelection of Evo Morales in 2019, it could have handily won the elections, obviating the need for blatant electoral fraud.
8) The victory of the MAS in the 2020 elections is not a blank check. As Luis Arce himself recognized after the exit polls results were announced, the previous MAS government had made many mistakes which need to be corrected. Yet questions remained: Which mistakes is he referring to? And will his government be able to correct them and initiate a renewed second phase in the process of change? Further, the electoral results do not prove that what happened in 2019 was simply a conspiracy mounted by the right, nor do they represent a pure and simple victory for “international progressivism”. Different leaders of indigenous peasant social organizations have expressed deep criticisms of the traditional behavior of the left and their strategies of seizing and clining to power. Furthermore, the practice of supposedly progressive left leaders doing everything in their power to cling to power, rather than cultivating and elevating new generations of movement members to achieve their potential, needs deep scrutiny and reflection by these organizations. Again, these elections show that MAS enjoys more support when it runs candidates chosen from the grassroots.
What might happen with the government of Lucho and David?
9) The key to relaunching the process of change in Bolivia relies not so much on the future government but in the capacity of self-determination and autonomy of social organizations, and rebuilding their capacity to generate and push for alternative proposals at all levels. This implies having the ability to see beyond their immediate demands, propose a strategy for Bolivia that exceeds the exhausted Agenda of October 2003, and re-articulate alliances with urban social sectors.
10) The government of Lucho and David will not be a simple repetition of the government of Evo Morales as the conditions surrounding and power relations within the MAS have changed since his departure. Today the future MAS government is already a space of contention and dispute. Evo Morales and those around him will make every effort to control the government, which will require cornering or re-co-opting the social organizations that support David Choquehuanca. For now, the tilt of the scales depends on Lucho Arce who doesn’t want to be Evo’s puppet, but also doesn’t have a trajectory of autonomy in relation to Evo. The distribution of offices and quotas of power for the leaders of social organizations, normalized during the last decade of Evo Morales’ patronage politics, will be very difficult for the new government to overcome. The next few months will be decisive in revealing how forces within and among the new MAS government and the social organizations are realigned.
11) The future government’s legitimacy will be quickly eroded by the severity of the economic crisis. The decrease in international reserves, the pressure from the devaluations of the currencies of neighboring countries, and the general decline in the economy will make it close to impossible for the MAS government to fulfill its promises of stability and economic growth while responding to the countless demands of the population. The recipe applied since 2015, of injecting money into the economy through public investment with resources from foreign borrowing and drawing down international reserves, is not sustainable in the short term. This is the moment to rethink and discuss openly the way forward to overcome the extractivist economy that the government of Evo Morales encouraged.
12) The new MAS government needs to promote a process of reconciliation and unity among all Bolivians. This is not possible without dialogue and consensus-building processes. The process of building consensus could be pursued – as the MAS did in the past – through making concessions to agribusiness, banking, mining and other elite power sectors. Alternatively, it could be done through a process of convergence based on the 2009 Constitution. The new government faces a choice: it can end up deepening the prior course of favoring of GMOs, biofuels, and the export of meat at any cost, or it can take up a new the path of demanding – as stipulated by the Constitution – that large land owners fulfill the Social Economic Function of property, respect the rights of Mother Earth, and pursue effective promotion of agroecology in Bolivia. Indications are equivocal: at present, while Lucho promotes the massive production of biofuels as a strategic pillar, David questions the expansion of GMOs.
13) The independence and separation of State powers is another crucial issue. The orientation of Evo Morales and those that surround him is to monopolize all the State powers to protect themselves from legal and administrative prosecution, and to use them against their adversaries. The control and submission of the judiciary, parliament, electoral court, comptroller’s office, ombudsman’s office and the media have been characteristic of the government of Evo Morales. If Lucho and David maintain that trajectory, they will soon see the emergence of a great resistance by citizens movements.
14) Avoiding cases of corruption going forward while at the same time prosecuting cases of corruption from the government of Evo Morales is a critical issue for the legitimacy of the new government. With regard to corruption, the population will have less patience with the government of Lucho and David than they did with Evo. One thing is the perception of corruption in times of prosperity, quite another is in times of acute crisis.
15) During past MAS governments, a new bourgeoisie emerged associated with the state bureaucracy, public procurement and works contracts, trade, smuggling, mining cooperatives, and the production of coca leaves linked to drug trafficking. These new sectors of political-economic power ended up influencing several of the main policy directions of the Evo Morales government. To counterbalance the power of these new elites, it is critical to strengthen the capacity of existing and emerging social movements for autonomous deliberation and action, generation of political and policy proposals, and self-determination.
A fundamental issue is whether the whole of Bolivian society will be able to make ethics and a real process of change prevail over political pragmatism. Without this, there is no future. The decisions that the future government will have to make will be very difficult. It will only be possible to face this situation if there is a wide, sincere and transparent discussion within social organizations and society as a whole.