Beyond the ballot: Where Bolivia’s main political forces stand after a turbulent year

Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday, October 18, in the long-awaiting re-run of the country’s disputed October 2019 general election. Three weeks of opposition protests, alleging that electoral fraud had provided incumbent president Evo Morales the 10% margin required to avoid a run-off, combined with a nationwide police mutiny to prompt his resignation and flight into exile. While unusually violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Morales led to five deaths prior to his overthrow, the next ten days were even bloodier: 33 people died, at least 25 of them at the hands of the police and military.

The displacement of Evo Morales, the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history and the winner of three prior elections, from power was a dramatic shift. At the time I laid out the political panorama like this:

In this post, I check in on those four political forces with an emphasis on looking beyond their electoral chances. (For a detailed look at the political parties’ standing in the polls, see: Luis Arce (MAS) leads polls heading into Bolivia’s election… but may struggle to prevent a runoff.)

1. The Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP): A troubled plurality

Bolivia’s largest political party, the MAS, remains a formidable political force. While Evo Morales and much of his cabinet is in exile (or holed up in friendly embassies in La Paz), the party designated former finance minister Luis Arce Catacora as its standard bearer for the 2020 elections. Arce and his running David Choquehuanca lead the pack of presidential candidates going into Sunday’s vote, obtaining around the same vote share in current polls and Morales won in 2019.

Arce has focused on economic recovery as his key electoral message, a position already foreshadowed by Evo Morales’ alternative state-of-the-nation address on January 22. Unlike Morales, nominally his “campaign chief,” Arce has shown little enthusiasm for re-litigating the 2019 crisis. Instead he freely reels off lists of economic projects and promises a return to expanding employment. In recent weeks, running mate David Choquehuanca has taken a calculated distance from Morales and his closest advisors, an entorno (“surrounding” cluster of advisors) that he characterizes as separating itself from the MAS-IPSP’s grassroots base.

Internal divisions within the MAS-IPSP showed themselves in December and January in the distancing between a so-called ala oprimida (oppressed wing) of legislators who stayed in the country and the leadership in exile. It was Morales and the exiles who chose Arce over rival Choquehuanca to head the ticket. The most visible member of the ala oprimida, Senate President Eva Copa (MAS/El Alto) was left out of the candidate lists for the 2020 election.

The MAS-IPSP took a major joint action with that base in the July–August protest campaign to demand prompt elections. With over 100 points of blockades and participation from labor unions, this was a broader coalition than took to the streets to protest Morales’ ouster November 2019. But while it showed a continuing relationship between the party and many social movements, it also depended on rural municipal governments and may he a poor gauge of the party’s strength. At least some of the protesters felt sidelined by the MAS’ final negotiating position, though the labor union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana, accepted an intermediate truce until elections are held. Union leaders remain concerned about anti-MAS fraud at the polls.

2. Jeanine Áñez, Luis Camacho, and the Right wing: Controlling the national government wasn’t enough to cement lasting power

Ahead of the October 2019 election, I observed the challenge facing Bolivia’s hard Right wing: “Right-wing politics remains a minority tendency within Bolivia.” In three successive elections, the Santa Cruz-based regionalist movement had captained the opposition to Evo Morales, and was defeated each time. Nonetheless, this same movement rallied massively in late 2019, holding cabildos before and after the election, giving many of their votes to Carlos Mesa, and joining the anti-fraud push in the weeks after the election. Behind the scenes, Cruceño civic leader Luis Fernando Camacho maneuvered in search of police and military allies, either sparking or propelling forward a police mutiny and an officers’ rebellion within the military command. Amid the uncertainty, Camacho flew to La Paz and staged a dramatic entry into the presidential palace (Palacio Quemado) with a Bible in hand, enacting a racist fantasy of civilizing the Indian president through Christianity. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes negotiations maneuvered political unknown Jeanine Áñez into the presidency. Áñez in turn swore in Chapare hotelier Arturo Murillo and retired officer Luis Fernando López as Ministers of Government and Defense, respectively, and elevated López and Camacho’s allies in the military to the high command.

In less than a week, the hardliners had propelled themselves not just to the head of the anti-Morales movement but to the crucial positions of power in the state. Áñez’s party had won a scant 4.24% of the vote, but she assumed the role of transitional president. Had this been her sole intent, as she repeatedly promised that week, the lack of voter support might not have been so consequential. But both she and Camacho had the ambition of transforming their temporary leap into a permanent place in power.

Áñez announced she would run for president on January 24, reversing her November and December promises to never use the presidential office to secure her own election. It came on the heels of a dramatic annual address on January 22. Her candidacy was built on an unexpected alliance with Sol.Bo, the center-left party that governed the city and department of La Paz.

Luis Camacho, with no elected office or place in the Áñez government, had announced his candidacy on November 29, 2019. Camacho played against stereotypes by sealing an alliance with Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) President Marco Pumari to serve as his vice presidential candidate on December 31. The political manifesto of their alliance offered only slogans and rejection of the “narcogovernment” of Evo Morales: “We leave aside the recurrent discourse of division between east and west, of the division between city and countryside, of the division between left and right.” “It is necessary for us to unite to construct a new STATE based on the trilogy of God, Fatherland, and People.”

Making a dramatic gesture of offering to “blank out” his own candidacy, Camacho convened a February gathering of the anti-Evo Morales opposition: “We are going to bring ourselves down so that we can all support a single candidacy.” The unity talks went nowhere: no one dropped out of the race. The perpetual inability of the Bolivian right to unify around a candidate haunted the half dozen politicians seeking to take on Luis Arce and the MAS-IPSP.

Meanwhile the street-clashing “youth” arm of Camacho’s civic movement, the Santa Cruz Youth Union (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista)—which Camacho had once headed—built ties with its Cochabamba analogue, the Cochala Youth Resistance (Resistencia Juvenil Cochala). Both groups made periodic appearances in on-the-street political violence as the year wore on, most dramatically during the waining days of the July–August blockades. Ministers in the Áñez government sometimes praised these less-lethal quasi-paramilitary formations, while also insisting that the police and armed forces must now take charge of the streets. In late January, that control took its most tangible form with the stunning deployment of 70,,000 armed soldiers to streets across the country.

However, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, a national health crisis began to overtake the Áñez government’s ambitions to consolidate the energy of the October protests behind it. Áñez and her cabinet were troubled by a series of scandals surrounding overpayment for badly needed medical supplies, and the epidemic exploded, first in Santa Cruz and later in La Paz. Luis Camacho peaked in the polls in January and Añez in February, neither ever overtaking Carlos Mesa.

Finally heeding her own advice, Áñez withdrew from the race in favor of anti-MAS-IPSP unity in September. Camacho stayed in, following the footsteps of Áñez’s 2019 Democrats alliance as the standard bearer of the eastern autonomist Right. Assuming that his voters don’t desert him to strategically back Mesa, Camacho’s Creemos party is on track for regional strength in Santa Cruz and Beni, but a near shut-out elsewhere. Still, such a fraction could hold sway over a hypothetical president Mesa in need of allies and unwilling to cut a deal with the MAS-IPSP.

The darker possibility is of attempts by the Right to hold power through the security forces, or through a repeat of the 2019 protests in the event of a MAS-IPSP victory. While these paths cannot be ruled out in advance, the broad acceptance of the legitimacy of the electoral authorities by the leading anti-MAS candidate makes these scenarios unlikely. Both Áñez and Camacho tried to use their temporary leadership of the anti-MAS parade to claim national power, but those plans have not been realized.

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