The October 20, 2019, election in Bolivia marks a watershed moment in the electoral fortunes of Evo Morales and the party he leads, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). When Morales was elected in 2005, he was the first candidate to achieve an absolute majority (53.7%) of Bolivian voters in at least half a century. The MAS-IPSP was the leading force of a three-fifths majority alliance in the Constitutional Assembly of 2006 and 2007, which produced a new constitution approved by 61.4% of voters in January 2009. In the next two elections, in 2009 and 2014, Evo and the MAS-IPSP won over 60% of the vote, and gained two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.
A referendum to authorize Morales to run for a fourth term was held on February 21, 2016. Despite a vigorous campaign, Morales was unable to secure majority support to amend the constitution. He finished with 48.7% of the vote.
This week, Morales has again fallen short of the 50% mark, winning between 44% and 46.85% of the vote. Vote counting is ongoing, but the key question is not whether Morales will win majority, but whether he will outpace his leading challenger by more than 10% and avoid a runoff. In the legislature, the MAS-IPSP will lose its supermajority, but will remain the majority party in the Chamber of Deputies and may end up with half the Senators, or one or two more.
While the final vote totals are not in, we have both a broad-based rapid count (TREP) by the Plurinational Electoral Organ of some 83% of the votes cast and a parallel analysis by researchers at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and Fundación Jubileo called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your vote counts”). The differences between these two sources are minor, and putting either into context lets us see the overall trends. (Since the re-started rapid count is the object of speculation about vote manipulation and the official count is incomplete and rapidly changing, I’m not using their data here.)
Morales lost votes across the board since 2014, 2016
Compared with the last presidential election in 2014, Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP lost support in all nine of Bolivia’s departments, receiving 15.9% altogether. (All percentages in this post are percentages of votes cast, not percentage declines.) The sharpest losses for the governing party came in Chuquisaca, Potosí, and Oruro. Potosí and Oruro are traditional sources of strength for the MAS-IPSP, but have been fading for nearly a decade. In the two most populous departments, La Paz department fell away from the MAS-IPSP slightly more than the national average, while Santa Cruz’s vote share decline slightly less. The northern Amazonian departments of Beni and Pando saw the smallest declines.
If we include the 2016 constitutional referendum, which functioned as a referendum on Evo Morales, we can map the vote shifts over time.
Most of Evo Morales’ vote loss since 2014 was already baked in when he sought to amend the constitution to allow his re-election in 2016. Overall, the vote in 2016 was highly predictive of the 2019 outcome. Not only did Morales lose the 2016 referendum, he proved unable to recover the votes of people who voted “no” in this week’s election. Only in Cochabamba, Potosí, and Tarija (according to the TREP results, but not Tu Voto Cuenta) did Morales recover any lost ground. Morales continued to slide between 2016 and 2019.
On balance, 72-80% of the decline in Morales vote share between two the two presidential elections happened by the February 2016 referendum. The additional decline was between 3 and 5 percent of the national vote. While there has been much talk of the #BoliviaFires impacting the election, the Santa Cruz region broke against Evo Morales only slightly more than the country as a whole since 2016.
The big surprise is Carlos Mesa was able to attract so much of the left-right coalition that opposed Morales in the 2016 election. No left-wing opponent gathered significant votes on Sunday, but many left-leaning voters must have voted for Mesa. The independent left/indigenous candidate Felix Patzi garnered 1.1% of the vote.
Regional trends: The MAS-IPSP lost support in the highlands and gave back their 2014 gains in the lowlands
In the early years of Morales’ presidency, the MAS-IPSP was a party significantly defined by region and ethnicity. It was born of coalition building among rural, indigenous organizations and represented the demands of urban and rural mass movements that held greater sway in the capital La Paz, its poorer twin city El Alto, the highland departments of La Paz, Potosí and Oruro, and the central department of Cochabamba. As early as 2004, politicians in the media luna (crescent moon) departments of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija put forward a regional project in opposition to the MAS the highland indigenous peoples who had led recent protest mobilizations.
So in 2005 and 2009, the regional vote was highly polarized. In La Paz, Potosí, and Oruro, dense political outreach efforts turned out around 80% of voters to back the MAS-IPSP in 2009, levels of support that had previously only been obtained in small communities that were integrated into the party. This backing was crucial for winning a two-thirds supermajority in the legislature.
After 2009, however, the political aims of the MAS-IPSP shifted towards recruiting new voters in the lowlands. This effort too was successful, and in 2014 the party won majorities in Tarija and Pando, and 49% of the vote in Santa Cruz. However, that push only offset the party’s declining dominance in La Paz, El Alto and the Altiplano. A long-running protest movement demanding development in Potosí, agricultural colonists in Caranavi, Altiplano peasants near Achacachi, and coca growers in the La Paz Yungas are some of the many grassroots movements who have been at loggerheads with the MAS-IPSP government in these regions.
Now, in 2019, the party’s gains in the lowlands in 2014 have been reversed, but its decline in the highlands have continued. Overall, as can be seen in this graphic, the steady erosion of MAS support in highland departments has led them to converge with the lowlands. Bolivia is a far less regionally polarized country than in 2009.
But today that lack of regional polarization also means that a majority of Bolivians—and in seven of the nine departments—cast a vote against Evo Morales on Sunday. On Monday, protesters concerned with the possibility of electoral fraud took to the streets in all nine departmental capitals. And Monday night, they set fires electoral installations in Potosí, Sucre, and Tarija. By Tuesday, there were proposals for coordinated strikes across all nine departments, posing the greatest nationwide challenge to a government that once commanded an unprecedentedly large electoral base.