Jeanine Áñez’s surprising new ally from La Paz

With less than 48 hours remaining before an official deadline to finalize party alliances for the May 3 presidential ballot, two sudden surprises shifted the Bolivian political landscape. First, interim President Jeanine Áñez Chávez announced her own candidacy, reversing her emphatic promises upon assuming office. Áñez had been warning for weeks of the danger of splitting the anti-MAS vote and urging unity over partisanship. Now she will become one of at least ten candidates facing off against the MAS-IPSP candidate, former finance minister Luis Arce Catacora.

On January 10, for example, Áñez tweeted:

We Bolivians have fought for a single cause: to leave tyranny behind; that we have accomplished thanks to the patriotism of the youth, women, and men who went out onto the streets for a free Bolivia. To disperse the vote would be to devalue our struggle!

Tweet from Jeanine Añez Chavez (@JeanineAnez), January 10, 2020.

As late as January 19, the interim president was placing herself above partisan politics in her pleas for unity: “We hope that there will be the political maturity and openness within the political class to see the greater good. What may happen with me is what I am least concerned with, what does interest me is what could happen to Bolivia.” Of course, by then, the negotiations for her candidacy had already begun.

The Demócratas party (Twitter|Wikipedia entry)—formally the Social Democrat Movement, but composed of rightist regional parties and led by Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz —took up her candidacy as their own. Áñez had represented the party (competing as the “Unity Democrats” alliance) as a senator in the 2015-2020 term. Significantly, however, two more political forces have joined in backing her candidacy.

Luis “Lucho” Revilla and Juan del Granado at a press conference celebrating Revilla’s first election as mayor of La Paz, 4 April 2011. (photo: Carwil Bjork-James)

Luis “Lucho” Revilla has governed La Paz as mayor since 2010, a post he succeeded from his co-partisan and human rights lawyer Juan del Granado. The two had both represented the Without Fear Movement (Movimiento Sin Miedo; MSM), a center-left party that allied with Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP in 2005, and offered support wtih criticism during the 2008 constitutional referendum. The party, always strongest in La Paz department, made a serious effort at recruiting disaffected MAS voters in the 2009 general and 2010 regional election. In 2014, however, it failed to reach the 3% threshold for keeping its legal status and was forced to reorganize in advance of the 2015 regional elections. Revilla’s urban progressive party allied with Felix Patzi’s indigenous socialist Third System Movement (Movimiento Tercer Sistema; MTS) to become the dominant political force in La Paz department: SOL.bo, a tech-oriented acronym for Sovereignty and Freedom (Soberanía y Libertad punto bo). Patzi, whose ideology proposes indigenous communities as the basis of a system beyond capitalism and state socialism, has been governor of La Paz for the last five years. Ever distrustful of Evo Morales’ governing party SOL.bo joined Carlos Mesa’s Citizen Community presidential coalition in 2019.

So it was a major surprise on January 24 when Revilla threw his support behind Jeanine Áñez, in an endorsement that coincided with the Alasitas festival in downtown La Paz. Widespread speculation implies that Revilla expects a Vice Presidential position in return for his endorsement, but the second spot on the ballot has not been announced yet, and Revilla is very loudly proclaiming that he didn’t trade his endorsement for a seat. Almost as loudly as Jeanine Áñez had proclaimed she wasn’t considering running for president.

(For his part, Patzi ran separately for president in 2019 and is preparing to do so again. He briefly proposed withdrawing himself from the race if fellow Aymara radical David Choquehuanca led the MAS-IPSP ticket.)

Political implications: A fraught candidacy and a betrayed center-left

Áñez’s candidacy complicates life for the Bolivian right: a half-dozen candidates are now all naming one another as the obstacle to unity among the coalition that toppled Evo Morales in November 2019. She activates Bolivians’ frequently visceral reactions against prolonging oneself in power, will be questioned at every turn for her use of state resources, and makes it harder for the right as whole to cast such power-grabbing patterns as the exclusive domain of the Movement Towards Socialism. Plus she represents one more hat in the ring, although one immediately at the front of the pack alongside former president Carlos Mesa (the second-place finisher in October) and Luis Fernando Camacho (the leader of the Santa Cruz civic movement).

Roxanna Lizarraga, a journalist who served as Communications Minister for Áñez’s government issued a fiery letter of resignation in protest: “By converting yourself into President-candidate, you have left aside the mandate of the Bolivian people who fought in the streets and have put the government at the service of a group of politicians and a self-perpetuating project that differs very little from the practices of Evo Morales and MASismo. … I won’t go no enumerating the acts and gestures of your government that do not help at all in the RECONSTRUCTION OF DEMOCRACY.” (Perhaps fearing further open letters, Áñez requested resignations from all 19 of her cabinet members, though she reinstated 17 in their offices.) The gaggle of right-wing candidates for president have not hesitated to echo Lizarraga’s indictment.

But the unconditional embrace of Áñez by Luis Revilla and at least one wing of the SOL.bo political party also complicates things for the independent left. Massive mobilizations in La Paz were a critical part of the challenge to Evo Morales and the apparent electoral fraud in the October 2019 election. As mayor of La Paz, Lucho Revilla gave a left-center imprimatur to these protests. Afterwards, the party’s message was a claim to embody the protests while maintaining a commitment to the social democratic and redistributive policies of the Morales era. In December, Revilla promised: “Before discussing candidates, what is more important to us is to find coinciding programs and ideologies so that the next government will be strong.” This was the kind of position that had defined the MSM’s arms-length alliance with the Morales government in 2010 and promised a left-center pole in electoral arena.

As of this week, that is all gone. Putting both candidacy and policy aside, Revilla signed an alliance with a party of the Santa Cruz right, and pledged unconditional support to Áñez’s choices: “We are ready to defend her, to support her, and to back her decisions. | Estamos listos para defenderla, apoyarla y respaldar sus decisiones.”

Carlos Mesa appears to have become the political orphan of the movement that rallied to save his chance for a second-round victory in 2019. Since Morales’ overthrow, he has been reluctant to criticize either the movement that protested the election results or the interim president who took power in its wake. It remains to be seen whether he will offer the same formula as last time: Morales-era policies without Morales’ party, and whether such a position will appeal to the right flank of voters who saw him as their best hope in 2019. If Mesa tacks further to the right, some of his voters may give Luis Arce a second look.

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