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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Bolivia’s political landscape 2012: Departments and Municipalities

Summary: The governing MAS party has greatly expanded its legal influence at the regional and local level since surviving the political crisis of 2008. It extended its reach even beyond its electoral successes of April 2010 by way of savvy parliamentary maneuvers and by pushing aside opponents under indictment. However, in localities like Sucre and Quillacollo, it has been unable to convert interim office-holding into a new electoral majority. Instead, 2011 saw increased frustration with the national party from within parts of its left grassroots base. At the Departmental level, the MAS has put representatives or allies into the governor’s chair, but indigenous delegates have acted independently to lead Legislative Assemblies in two departments.

much more after the jump

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Sucre/Chuquisaca election roundup

In the big news, definitely the headline: ACI candidate Savina Cuellar defeats MAS candidate Walter Valda. The final vote: 51.5% to 41.2%, far closer than the initial margin that reached the early national and international press. As expected, Sucre went for her heavily (67,38% to 26,57%), but the mostly rural provinces backed Valda in a big way. Final details en español.

So on to the experiences of the day. First the “act of good government” made for a silent city for much of the day: no vehicles on the streets except for the occasional motorbike and those cars granted a permit by electoral officials. Certain Bolivian election norms are better than the American ones: a period of reflection with no advertising before the vote, free transport for elderly voters, and an election held on a day when no one has to work. And with no one having to work, all the shops and restaurants were closed, save a small few servicing visiting gringos (which means all folks from the global North in Bolivia) and internet cafes connecting the less resourced reporters with the ‘Net.

As early reports from the city’s ballot boxes came in, Savina’s supporters gathered in the main square and rallied. Some of their chants reflected the months before, notably “Sucre de pie, Evo de rodillas! [Sucre on the march, Evo on his knees!]” Others talked of becoming the national capital and winning autonomy for the department.

Chatting with MAS election observers (each party is entitled to a representative in each precinct), it’s clear there was a legitimate ACI victory, although it was clouded by extra “observers” for the ACI in some precincts who belong to confrontation groups (read, street fighters).

The story of May 24 remains untold in Sucre’s mainstream media despite at least two attempts to show Cesar Brie’s documentary on TV. Both were interrupted by covert means–once the cable
company switched off the local channel showing it, and the other time, (and no, I’m not making this up), unknown parties pushed eucalyptus trees into the power lines that feed local broadcast transmitters.

If in the atmosphere of Sucre I’ve felt very partisan in my descriptions of what’s going on, which is quite frighteningly hostile to open organizing by the MAS, the left, etc., my personal feelings there were in fact very liberal. In the older sense of the word. While I know that the different performance of the parties contending for government will make a big difference to many in the department, probably a difference of life or death to those who depend on public services (Cesar Brie told me that infant mortality has been halved in the past few years), I couldn’t stop focusing on the absence of the ability organize openly, to do things like open an office.

I’m trying to collate all my thoughts on/experiences of the election, its national significance, and some photos. So stay tuned.