On October 18, 2020, Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People (MAS-IPSP) party roared back into a majority at the ballot box, winning a solid 55.11% of the vote and nearly doubling its nearest rival, Carlos Mesa’s Citizen Community (CC)’s 28.83%. The presidential ticket of Luis Arce Catacora and David Choquehuanca easily surpassed the simple-majority threshold for avoiding a runoff vote, and had an ample 26.28% margin of victory. Their victory came just 364 days after the disappointing performance of Evo Morales, who garnered 47.08% with a 10.57% margin over Mesa. It is all the more impressive since Arce and Choquehuanca campaigned without the benefits of incumbency and under the cloud of political persecution imposed by the temporary government of far-right interim president Jeanine Áñez.
This post takes a quantitative look at which parties gained and lost votes between these two elections and how the MAS-IPSP majority has evolved in size and geography since 2005. In the past year, the most consequential shift was missed by the headlines: the collapse in support for third-party candidate Chi Hyun Chung. I will also consider what these shifts reveal about Evo Morales’ second-round chances in 2019 (much better than expected), and Carlos Mesa’s fateful decision not to negotiate a prompt second round. A year ago, I looked at where and how Evo Morales lost his majority in 2016 and 2019; in the final section, I extend that analysis and see where Arce and Choquehuanca gained back supporters.
Luis Arce Catacora, the economic architect of the Movement Towards Socialism during Evo Morales’ fourteen-year presidency, will take power today as Bolivia’s sixty-seventh president. Arce and incoming Vice President] David Choquehuanca were two of the longest-serving ministers in Evo’s cabinet (both from 2006 to 2017) and they stood at the core, respectively, of the party’s socialist and plurinational projects during those years.
When the Morales government came to power, it was haunted by the spectre of economic failure under the last center-left government, the 1982 to 1985 UDP government of Hernán Siles Zuazo. Morales turned to Arce, an economist who had worked in the Bolivian Central Bank since 1987, to lead his economic policy. Arce faced an incredible challenge: to thread the needle between popular demands for redistribution and an international credit market wary of leftist populism.
The markets were already trembling: Morales was already a bogeyman of demagogic populism. He was vilified by American diplomats for the coca leaf’s connection to narcotics and stereotyped domestically as an uninformed peasant ignorant of diplomatic protocol and economic realities. Moreover, Morales proposed a “21st century socialism” as his economic project. Everything that was an anathema to neoliberal technocrats seemed to be packaged together.
And yet, the new Morales government was far from ignorant of global economic or political realities. It still needed foreign credit, still lived in a hemisphere politically and militarily dominated by the United States, and still sought international investment. The spectre of dangerous populism, and the historical shadow of the 1982–86 hyperinflation, threatened all of those relationships. The Bolivian government could not afford to be downgraded in international bond markets, isolated like a new Cuba, or spurned by transnational corporate investors. And so, the government sent clear signals to global powers about just what its brand of populism would entail.
One unlikely emissary was Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a Marxist intellectual and former guerrilla, who spoke at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2006. “We are not,” the Vice President pledged, “a populist government with easily opened pockets and cheap promises.” He highlighted the government’s “austerity” with its officials, who would no longer put money in offshore accounts (unlike their notoriously corrupt predecessors), and its “responsible management of macroeconomics.” This was Arce’s portfolio.
At the end of a long Election Day evening, Luis Arce Catacora stepped forward to claim victory in Bolivia’s presidential elections. Two coinciding preliminary counts coincided in estimating he had a 20-point advantage in the contest, nearly double his best pre-election polls and the 10% margin he needed to avoid a runoff. In all likelihood, Arce and vice presidential candidate David Choquehuanca will garner an absolute majority of valid votes. Many are rightly viewing their victory as a vindication for Bolivia’s largest political party and a demonstration of the continued power of its grassroots base. The election campaign was conducted under the shadow of an anti-MAS-IPSP government and a punishing global pandemic, with many of the party’s leaders in jail or exiled, by far the most adverse circumstances the party had faced since at least 2002.
Arce and Choquehuanca appear to have gained rather than lost electoral ground since the October 2019 general election, and likely even more since the nationwide protest wave that followed. Voters and political organizations that abandoned the MAS-IPSP ticket in 2019 returned to it in significant numbers, largely in the highland departments of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí, as well as central Chuquisaca. It should be clear to all that Arce/Choquehuanca led a more successful bid than did forcibly exiled president Evo Morales (nominally their “campaign chief” from Argentina). If you listen closely to their statements before and after the election, it becomes apparent that they won in substantial part by keeping the former president at a distance and promising a new era in socialist government, free of the mistakes of the past.
In a global environment in which many are eager to read the election as a referendum on Evo Morales, I am writing here to highlight just how hard the MAS-IPSP leadership of 2020 is working (and has worked) to separate itself from its former leader, and why that separation may have endeared it to a sometimes disenchanted electorate and grassroots base.
Shortly after Luis Arce Catacora confidently predicted his own victory, two major polling firms released their counts of today’s election, both of which projected a 20% margin of victory for the Movement Towards Socialism in an historic election. The current projected margin doubles the largest advantage (10%) estimated by any pre-election poll and is far more than needed for Arce to avoid a runoff. Indeed, they project Arce’s party winning a simple majority of all votes, something it has done in three prior national elections and which no other political party has done since the 1960s.
While data are preliminary, interim president Jeanine Áñez has congratulated her political opponents on their apparent victory:
Second-place finisher Carlos Mesa’s campaign retired from public appearances early in the night and he has not commented on the late-night vote estimates online. Technically the election is his to concede, and that might only come once the official results resemble the unofficial ones.
After a year of unprecedented turmoil—including reasonable doubts about whether a new election would be indefinitely postponed—Bolivia’s leading political parties are heading into the October 18, 2020, election in much the same configuration as they were one year earlier. Luis Arce Catacora, who served as Evo Morales’ finance minister for twelve of his fourteen years in office, leads the race as the candidate of the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). He seems on track to win a plurality in the first round of voting, to surpass the 40% threshold of valid votes, but perhaps not to obtain the 10 percentage-point advantage over the second-place finisher necessary to obtain a runoff. And once again, former president Carlos Mesa, and his Citizen Community coalition, represents the only serious threat to the MAS-IPSP. Newcomer Luis Camacho, scion of Santa Cruz’s right-wing elite, seems poised to be the only other candidate to break the 3% minimum for parliamentary representation.
Three major polls by the Tu Voto Cuenta academic–NGO consortium, the Ipsos polling firm, and the Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica (CELAG) show tightly converging results as can be seen here. (Added Oct 15: CiesMori/UTP and Mercados y Muestras/Página Siete.)
A 10% margin is still within reach for Arce and the MAS-IPSP, and any such count would not be subject to the same accusations of his party controlling the electoral apparatus. However, a close count could still arouse both skepticism and protest. Arce remains essentially at the same place in the polls as Evo Morales in October 2019. Then, as now, plenty of former MAS voters have not yet rejoined the party, something which Arce and VP candidate David Choquehuanca’s base-mobilizing strategy seems intent on reversing.
Today, February 3 was the deadline for Bolivian parties to submit their candidate lists for the May 3 general election, which replaces the annulled October 2019 vote. Here is a summary of the parties, their political situation, and their candidates.