Evo Morales remains the favorite, but Bolivia faces first uncertain election in Plurinational era

Evo Morales’ bid for a fourth term as Bolivia’s president will be put to the test when voters go to the polls on Sunday, October 20. All signs point to the most competitive presidential contest since 2002, when the future president narrowly lost to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the architect of neoliberalism in Bolivia. After grassroots protests ousted Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and his historian-turned-Vice-President in 2005, Evo Morales swept to power with a decisive majority in a December 2005 special election. Since then, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) has dominated national and municipal politics in the country, and never dipped below 48% support on a national ballot.

Morales is now the longest serving president in Bolivian history, but polls, past electoral results, and an extraordinary series of pre-election protests point to his extraordinary vulnerability this time around. Even though Morales retains a solid base and a significant lead in the polls, he may not clear the threshold for a first round victory, and could face a competitive runoff with Carlos Mesa a month later.

To understand the uncertainty in the election, you must first know the ground rules of the vote. Under the 2009 Constitution, presidents are elected by popular vote. In the initial round of voting, a candidate who receives over 50% of the votes cast (for a candidate), or who receives 40% and holds a 10% advantage over the 2nd place finisher is elected president. Otherwise, the top two finishers face off in a new head-to-head vote. Current polls agree that Morales and Mesa will finish first and second, respectively, but differ as to whether a runoff will be triggered.

Bolivian public opinion polls vary widely in quality and consistency. Historically, some have concentrated their samples in the more accessible urban corridors and underestimated the MAS-IPSP vote, which once had overwhelming rural strength. This year, however, a research team at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (La Paz’s famed public university) produced a poll with an extraordinarily large and geographically representative sample called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your Vote Counts”). Their most recent results are shown here:

If accurate, Morales’ 32.3-27.0 margin would neither clear the 40% threshold nor the 10% minimum difference, even after excluding blank, null, and unsure votes as the electoral authorities will do in their calculations. Another poll by CiesMori shows a wider lead, 36.2-26.9. Discarding the neutral votes, this puts Morales just above the numbers needed to avoid a runoff.

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Santa Cruz cabildo: Bolivian fires prompt right-leaning region to mobilize “in defense of the land”

On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.

Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.

But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.

On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.

Now add the fires to the mix.

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