On Sunday, February 21, Bolivians will vote in a constitutional referendum. A yes vote would authorize incumbent President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019, and to rule the country for an unprecedented twenty years, ending in 2025. Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS-IPSP) have a long streak of national victories stretching back to his election in 2005 (with 54% of the vote), through a special vote of confidence in 2008 (67%), and two re-elections in 2009 (64%) and 2014 (61%). All of these contests involved face-offs against right-wing politicians associated with two decades of neoliberal economic policies from 1985 to 2005.
On the other hand, regional and local government elections in 2010 and 2015 showed more mixed results for the MAS-IPSP. Independent center-left parties like the Without Fear Movement (MSM) and its successor SOL.bo have gained important ground in these elections, while right wing forces have maintained a base in the country’s eastern departments. In the 2011 judicial elections a MAS-IPSP-backed slate of nominees was elected amid heavy abstention and massive numbers of blank or voided ballots. Likewise, five western departments rejected regional autonomy statutes in a September 2015 poll. While Vice President Álvaro García Linera tried to spin the result as validation of a strong central state, all of the statutes had been drafted by MAS-IPSP legislators.
Enter the present referendum. In 2008, Evo Morales agreed to a constitutional limit of two terms. In the run-up to the 2014 vote, he re-interpreted this limit as beginning with the 2009 constitution. During the 2014 political campaign, rumors of a constitutional amendment to extend his office began to circulate. While MAS-IPSP party activists backed the campaign from the beginning, it has been framed as an initiative arising from the Pact of Unity organizations—principally the CSUTCB peasant confederation and the “intercultural” federation of agrarian colonists—as well as the COB labor confederation, whose national leadership aligned with the MAS in 2013. While his party campaigned for it to happen, Evo only “agreed to the grassroots demand” that he run again four years from now.
The present campaign has the first effective collaboration between Evo Morales’ critics on the left and his long-time opponents on the right. With no political offices at stake, these two sides have been free to collaborate for the first time. Recent polls show the race to be a toss-up. You can read more about the vote here:
- Emily Achtenberg: Bolivia Votes: Can Evo Morales Run Again?
- Latin Correspondent: Bolivia’s Re-election Referendum: The case for Yes and No
- Angus McNelly: The Latest Turn of Bolivia’s Political Merry-Go-Round: The Constitutional Referendum
- Closing arguments for Yes and No as summarized by La Opinión newspaper of Cochabamba (es)