A year has passed since Bolivian voters denied President Evo Morales a chance at re-election in the February 21, 2016, referendum. The vote marked the first national defeat for Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in a decade (although local election results have been mixed before). Prior to that vote, critics of the government from the left (on indigenous rights, unkept development promises, corruption, or the centralization of power) had ultimately aligned against the conservative elite. But by holding a referendum that could curtail Morales’ power without replacing him entirely, the MAS generated a de facto alliance between its left and right opponents. (A similar phenomenon contributed to the unprecedented number of blank and spoiled ballots in the 2011 Judicial Elections.)
Despite the 51.3%–48.7% defeat, the MAS has plunged ahead with a national effort to re-elect Morales, offering four strategies to legalize him running for a fourth term:
Convene a constitutional referendum by collecting signatures through citizen initiative.
Re-convene a constitutional referendum through the Plurinational Legislative Assembly
Seek a judgement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal declaring that the president’s term limit is an unconstitutional violation of the public’s right to freely choose their leader.
Have Morales resign six months before the 2019 election to make himself eligible to run again.
Unsurprisingly, these proposals have not gone over well with either left critics or right-wing opponents of the government. With the February 21 referendum as a rallying symbol, organizations in both milieux as well as voters on social media have organized mobilizations “in defense of the vote.” You can get a sense of the tenor of these calls here:
A coalition of left grassroots signatories, including the movements behind the TIPNIS campaign, Potosí regional strikes, Guaraní protests at Takova Mora, and many other organizations put forward this document: Let’s remember why we voted no!
These mobilizations will have the slogan, February 21: Day of the Lie. This lie is mainly the false claim by President Morales’ young ex-lover Gabriela Zapata that she and the president had a son together, and (after the referendum) her procuring of a five-year-old boy to claim he was the president’s daughter. The scandal combined sex, paternity, and the whiff of trafficking in government influence: Zapata became the legal representative of Chinese corporation CAMC in Bolivia despite her youth and lack of qualifications. Zapata has been imprisoned since early last year, held on a rotating set of charges including influence peddling, kidnapping (of the presumed child), and fraud. Since their unexpected defeat, the MAS has focused attention on the story, which broke in early February 2016, as the factor that swung voters against them. On Sunday night, February 19, 2017, in a broadcast interview from jail, Zapata put forward the improbable claim that MAS political operative Wálter Chávez and long-time center-right opponent Samuel Doría Medina had invented the story of the child in 2005 to be deployed against Morales at some future date. (Former MAS official Amanda Dávila, Wálter Chávez, and Doría Medina have denied the claim.)
Bolivian politics has been marked by competing mobilizations in favor of and opposed to the government since at least 2004. Demonstrating a capacity to mobilize in large numbers is regarded as a marker of political legitimacy.
I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.
Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.
Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.
Bolivia’s television networks are reporting an overwhelming MAS victory in today’s elections, based on exit polls at “the mouth of the voting urns.” While the victory was not in much doubt, reports indicate that the MAS won a higher than expected 62-63% to Manfred Reyes Villa/PPB’s 23-24% (figures vary among the Red ATB, Unitel, and Los Tiempos). The MAS victory is reported to extend to 6 departments including Tarija (traditionally a part of the right-leaning Media Luna) and Chuquisaca (where MAS lost departmental elections, but won two national referenda in the last eighteen months). The television network Unitel is projecting that MAS will win 25 of the 36 seats in the Bolivian Senate, giving it an absolute and unblockable majority.
I may play at live blogging this over the next day…
14:40 PST Manfred Reyes Villa (PPB-CN), the leading opposition candidate has just made his first reaction. Reyes Villa is the former governor of Cochabamba, a post he was recalled from by referendum in August 2008. Speaking in Santa Cruz, he tried to reconfigure the national map to that of the height of the right-wing opposition, by noting that if Chuquisaca and Tarija, which joined the solidly pro-MAS departments in voting for Morales and the MAS today, were added to the remaining parts of the Media Luna, the overall five-province vote is projected to show a PPB-CN majority. This is an extreme and hard to justify geographic stretch.
14:50 PST ERBOL, a community radio network is passing on the ATB exit poll results, broken down by province. These shows a close vote in Santa Cruz and Pando in which the PPB-CN leads the MAS, but the margin is within the likely (but unstated) margin of error of the polls.
2009 has been a very different year for Bolivia than 2008, marked more by elections than by the intense street confrontations of late last year. The new Bolivian Constitution was sent to the polls in January 2009 after the referendum was approved under the influence of a march of more than 100,000 people to surround the Bolivian parliament in late 2008.
Now, eleven months later, general elections are being held tomorrow to elect the president, parliament and departmental governors. The MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) ticket of Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera is polling well ahead, and is expected to receive a majority of votes. Their closest rival, led by recalled Cochabamba governor Manfred Reyes Villa, is polling around 24%.
The poll will be marked by two innovations: a “biometric” (fingerprints, signature, photo) identification system, demanded by the opposition to prevent alleged voter fraud; and the participants of Bolivians outside the country’s borders, including the United States. The biometric system raised a lot of questions, starting with: could it be implemented for the entire population? Six months ago, at the Bolivian Studies Association in Sucre, I heard several talks about the many rural residents who lack a formal identification card, and the costs (and occasional benefits) of being invisible to the state, such as inelegibility for formal land ownership and government service. Four months later, after a 76-day registration marathon (in which everyone had to re-register to the new standards), the largest electorate ever (es) was certified with 4,997,172 voters.
Looking forward to next year, and my long trip to Bolivia, I’m keeping a close watch on tomorrow’s elections, comparing this year to last year, and imagining the consequences for the year to come. I’ll keep you posted.
[Saturday, June 28] Walther Valda, the candidate for prefect from Evo Morales’ party, the MAS (Movement towards Socialism), in Sunday’s election in the Department of Chuquisaca, has been forced to run a largely word-of-mouth campaign in the city of Sucre. No campaign headquarters can announce itself in the all the usual ways you might expect.
So, as candidate Valdas described in yesterday’s paper, the campaign has gone underground, rooted itself in word of mouth campaigning and going door-to-door. Walking around one sees wheatpasted posters and graffiti for both candidates, but only the ACI has flags flying from windows. Those flying flags of the MAS, I was told last night, have faced attacks on their property and their person. This is an election in which one side has to campaign clandestinely.
This is not just a matter of excess precaution, or a careful reaction to the one day of violence on May 24. In fact, each of the two days before that, horrible violence was visited on supporters of the MAS as
they respectively opened a campaign office and held a fundraiser at a prominent officials home. The election is being held in the first place because the former prefect, David Sanchez, survived having his home looted and burned, and fled to Peru. A leading member of the party was attacked downtown.
Things are entirely different, of course, outside the city, although there’s no sign of similar violence in the reverse direction. The ACI-supporting paper quoted thier candidate, Savina Cuellar, as complaining about an incident in which several drunken MAS supporters in an outlying town stole stacks of posters from an office and burned them in the streeet. The perpetrators turned themselves in.
I had a long talk with one Valda supporter, who radiated seriousness but also optimism. He views the urban support for the ACI as a matter primarily of misinformation, and had all the conviction of a canvasser that reaching people directly will sway the outcome.