More than 6 million voters are expected to participate in Bolivia’s national elections on October 12, a day also celebrated—not coincidentally—as Bolivia’s national “Day of Decolonization.” Unlike two other leftist Latin American presidents (in Brazil and Uruguay) whose parties are engaged in tightly contested electoral contests this month, President Evo Morales of the ruling MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party will likely win in a landslide, returning to his third consecutive term in office. If re-elected, he will be Bolivia’s longest serving leader in history, with the longest tenure of any incumbent Latin American president.
Recent polls put Morales 40 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina from the eastern lowlands department of Santa Cruz. The other contenders—former conservative president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, center-left ex-La Paz mayor Juan del Granado, and lowlands indigenous leader Fernando Vargas—trail considerably behind.
Still, what’s at stake in this election is not just the opportunity for a decisive defeat of the right, but whether Morales and the MAS party that emerges from the electoral process will be politically capable of deepening what Bolivians call their “process of change.”
In addition to the President and Vice-President, Bolivian voters will elect 36 senators (4 from each department) and 130 congressional deputies—63 from local districts, 60 from department-wide party slates, and 7 from special indigenous-minority constituencies—to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. For the first time in this election, all Bolivian citizens living abroad who are registered voters (approximately 272,000) will be eligible to vote, including 4,000 in the United States.
Also for the first time, each party has been required, under Bolivia’s new 2009 Constitution, to maintain gender parity by carrying an equal number of male and female candidates on its ticket. This has been difficult to implement in practice, but if successful, the percentage of women in the Plurinational Assembly could be the highest ever in Bolivia, if not the highest in the world.
Morales will win, first, because he is a highly charismatic leftist-popular-nationalist leader and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, with whom many in this majority-indigenous country strongly identify. According to recent surveys, Morales’s approval ratings are at around 72%.
More importantly, under Morales, Bolivia has experienced unprecedented economic prosperity, the benefits of which have largely been redistributed to the country’s poor and indigenous majority. Morales’s state-led economic policy, emphasizing the re-nationalization of strategic sectors divested by past neoliberal governments (including hydrocarbons, telecommunications, electricity, and some mines), has vastly increased revenues for public works, infrastructure improvements, social spending, and economic benefits.
Significant controversy has also been sparked by the warnings against “cross-voting,” or splitting the vote across party lines, that have been issued by some popular organizations affiliated with the MAS. A vote for the MAS presidential ticket but against MAS congressional candidates, says Damián Condori, leader of the national peasant federation (CSUTCB), violates decisions made democratically and organically by the communities and will be sanctioned according to norms of community justice. A similar sentiment has been echoed by outgoing MAS deputy Luis Gallego, speaking on behalf of indigenous organizations in the north of Potosí.
While the TSE has assured that voter coercion is a crime, Vice-President Alvaro García Linera has defended these pronouncements as a form of moral social control, consistent with long-standing highland peasant community traditions. Some MAS leaders worry more about the risk of cross-voting in urban districts, where disgruntled Masistas may rebel against candidates imposed by the party leadership—due to political differences or, in some cases, resentment against the requirement for gender parity.
On balance, though, voter discontent with the hegemonic aspects of the Morales government appears to be far outweighed by general economic satisfaction and a strong identification with the MAS’s national-popular agenda. Still, while Evo Morales and the MAS will likely deliver the votes for an impressive victory in this election, and appear to have fragmented and defeated conservative forces to an extent that is unprecedented among other “pink tide” leftist governments in the region, the challenges that remain in Bolivia will be at least as difficult to overcome. These include moving away from extractivism towards a diversified, more productive economy that protects indigenous and environmental rights, while balancing immediate multi-sector demands for improved living conditions, jobs, and services. Whether the new, more centrist political coalition forged through this election will prove capable of accomplishing this goal, in a way that deepens and moves Bolivia’s “process of change” in a progressive, democratic direction, remains to be seen.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents). She is currently in Bolivia observing the elections.