After the Referendum, What’s Next For Bolivia’s Progressive Left?

The surprising defeat of Evo Morales’s referendum bid to run for a fourth presidential term poses new challenges and opportunities for progressive forces in Bolivia.

Emily Achtenberg 4/15/2016

More than a month after Bolivians narrowly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed President Evo Morales to run for a fourth presidential term, the dust refuses to settle on the referendum vote.  

The amendment was defeated by a margin of 51.3% to 48.7%, a difference of only 2.6%, or 136,000 votes. The “No” (anti-reelection) forces prevailed in 6 of Bolivia’s 9 departments and in all of the departmental capital cities. The “Yes” (pro-reelection) vote dominated in the countryside, in the peri-urban peripheries, and in the indigenous city of El Alto, all traditional bastions of support for Morales and the ruling MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party.

While the margin of defeat was small, for the seemingly invincible Morales it was the first loss at the national ballot box since 2002. The referendum results stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming mandates Morales received in his past 3 presidential campaigns (54%, 64%, and 61% in 2005, 2009, and 2014, respectively), along with his landslide (67%) victory in the 2008 recall vote.

Although the referendum will have no electoral impact until Morales completes his current term in 2019, its repercussions are already being felt across Bolivia’s re-polarized political landscape— even as the scandals that haunted the vote continue to grab headlines. Meanwhile, the government and opposition camps continue to offer competing narratives to explain why the amendment failed.

Was this a case, as “No” supporters contend, of the “sovereign Bolivian people peacefully upholding their constitution” to prevent an entrenched party leadership from extending its power? Or was Morales the victim of a “dirty-war” launched by vengeful conservative elites with US support, as the government suggests, echoing ongoing efforts to destabilize leftist governments elsewhere in the region?

The complex reality, as usual, may lie somewhere in-between, with important lessons for the electoral future of progressive left forces in Bolivia.

A self-inflicted defeat?

Just two weeks before the vote, most analysts (including this writer) were predicting that the constitutional amendment would prevail by a narrow margin. With the referendum effectively transformed (by both campaigns) into a plebiscite on the Morales government, it seemed that voters’ unease with the MAS party’s anti-democratic tendencies would be outweighed by their continuing sense of material well-being.

Despite falling commodity prices, Bolivia’s economy has continued to experience modest growth, at least for now, with government spending and investment shored up by foreign reserves that Morales has diligently accumulated. Polls conducted around the time of the referendum showed Morales enjoying approval ratings of 58%, with 70% of Bolivians viewing his government as positive. For better or worse, most voters appeared to accept the MAS party mantra that Morales was essential to the country’s future political and economic stability.

In the days before the vote, this doctrine of “Evo exceptionalism” would be swept aside by two dramatic occurrences. First, the revelation (by an opposition-affiliated political analyst) that a former lover of Morales— and the father of a “love child” who may or may not still be living— enjoyed a high-level post in a Chinese company which has received multi-million dollar no-bid contracts from the MAS government.  

Second, the tragic arson attack on the El Alto municipal building, after a community protest march involving prominent MAS party militants and former city functionaries turned violent, breaking through a weak police cordon and leaving six dead and 26 wounded. The attack occurred soon after El Alto’s young opposition mayor Soledad Chapetón, whose 2015 victory represented a major setback for the MAS, had announced her allegiance to the “No” campaign.

While these episodes—perhaps not coincidentally—could not have been better timed to bolster the “No” vote, their negative impact on Morales was magnified by government’s inept response. Despite photographic evidence to the contrary, Morales denied any continuing relationship with ex-lover Gabriela Zapata. Prominent government officials sought to shift blame for the El Alto tragedy onto Chapetón herself, even as a MAS-affiliated union leader who had publicly threatened to be Chapetón’s “worst nightmare” was detained on arson charges.

The chain of events damaged the government’s credibility and more importantly, Morales’s aura of invincibility. The Zapata scandal, for the first time, raised questions about Morales’s moral character, a key source of his political legitimacy.

The party’s integrity had already been compromised by a far-reaching corruption scandal involving the government-sponsored Indigenous Fund (FONDIOC), in which dozens of government functionaries and affiliated social movement leaders have been implicated—while ranking officials responsible for the program have thus far escaped unscathed. Additionally, for constituencies still nursing resentment over the 2011-12 TIPNIS conflict, the El Alto tragedy appeared as yet another example of social movements championed by Morales veering out of control—or worse, of the MAS exploiting and fomenting conflicts between popular sectors.  

In this sense, as Pablo Stefanoni has argued, “Evo lost more to Evo than to the opposition.” The premature timing of the referendum itself, Stefanoni suggests, was another strategic error—perhaps driven by Morales’s continuing need for mass approval.  What it failed to recognize was the inherent danger of provoking a united front among vastly divergent political and social sectors— ranging from vehement right-wing opponents of Morales’s political project to leftist critics seeking to rehabilitate a stagnating “process of change.” This opportunistic alliance of old-guard neoliberal  politicians, disaffected urban middle class voters, and disgruntled popular sectors that became the “No” coalition could never have agreed on a candidate to oppose Morales, but could unite around the common goal of preventing his reelection.

Added to this is the phenomenon that Stefanoni characterizes as “political fatigue” (desgaste), a natural erosion of support for an entrenched regime (seen also in Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina), especially one that is becoming mired in scandal. On the flip side, some argue that Morales was victimized by his own success, having raised the electorate’s expectations faster than the GDP, now threatened by a looming economic downturn, could accommodate them

Ultimately, these factors combined with Bolivian voters’ deeply-rooted distrust of entrenched leadership—a sentiment held in abeyance for the past 10 years in favor of Morales, only to resurface when the veil of “Evo exceptionalism” was lifted—to create the context for the referendum’s narrow defeat.

A “dirty war” conspiracy?

Even so, it is doubtful that the constitutional amendment would have failed absent the successful efforts of opposition forces to parlay the scandals into a full blown crisis of credibility for Morales and the MAS party.

Just as in Brazil, where anti-corruption and pro-impeachment campaigns have been fueled by a growing conservative backlash against the left-leaning PT (Workers Party) government, in Bolivia the anti-reelection campaign had deeply partisan overtones—dominated by reactionary forces, but also with the complicity of the “popular No” progressive bloc.

As anthropologist Bret Gustafson has written, with the unfolding scandals came “the chance to destroy Evo, supposedly the world’s iconic representative of indigenous and popular struggle. The moment was ripe for detractors of all political stripes to attack.”

During the campaign, reasoned criticism soon gave way to rumors, accusations, innuendo, distortions, and outright lies spread widely through social media networks and relayed as fact by respectable sources. Themes ranged from Evo’s alleged $200 haircut to claims of election fraud, ultimately shown to be false or unsubstantiated.

As the Zapata scandal and El Alto tragedies unfolded, the rush to judgment against Morales on social media was reinforced by a relentless drumbeat of scandal updates from the anti-government press, which is well-represented in Bolivia (another echo of Brazil, with the important difference that Bolivia also has a significant state-friendly media sector that some say is heavily reliant on government advertising). Some of the most prominent news outlets giving a consistent voice to opposition views, such as the La Paz daily Página Siete, were aligned with the “popular No” vote.  

Social media networks also provided a forum for an outburst of racist invective, accompanied by a return to the streets of inflammatory graffiti (“no mas indios / no more Indians”) not seen in Bolivia since 2008, when secessionist threats from the elite-dominated eastern lowlands departments (the “media luna” or half-moon) brought the country to the brink of civil war.  Gianpaolo Baiocchi describes a similar phenomenon in Brazil, reflecting pent-up hostility towards PT affirmative action and redistributive policies by elite and middle class sectors who perceive their economic options as narrowing. (Analogies could also be made to the increasingly overt racism seen in the U.S. presidential campaign in the post-Obama era.)   

As for U.S. complicity, Morales has accused the US embassy of supplying the “No” campaign with financing and social media experts, while MAS militant Katu Arkonada sees the referendum’s “dirty wars” as a new form of U.S.-directed counterinsurgency. It may take another Wikileaks dump, or a declassification of documents 30 years from now, to verify or refute these claims.

Meanwhile, the mainstream U.S. media— once enamored of Morales’s successful economic pragmatism— has shown remarkable consistency in promoting the opposition viewpoint on the referendum (in Spanish as well as English). The New York Times editorialized that “three terms is enough” for “the increasingly imperious and authoritarian” Morales, also noting that the regional trend towards extended terms for leftist presidents “has been dismal for Washington’s influence in the region.” (The Times acknowledged that Bolivians might view the Morales government’s cost-benefit ratio differently.) For its part, the Washington Post hailed the “No” vote as “another step in Latin America’s encouraging march away from authoritarian populism.”

The bitterly-contested referendum has revealed a Bolivia that appears to be considerably more divided than it was just 18 months ago— when Morales won the presidency in 8 of 9 departments, proclaiming the defeat of the political right and the replacement of the “media luna” by the “luna llena (full moon) of a united Bolivia.”  Still, it is worth speculating how many voters vacillated at the ballot box like the revered Jesuit activist Xavier Albó, who recently confessed to Morales that he could not decide between the “Yes” and “No” options. (In the end, he was spared the decision when the transportation to his native highland voting place failed to materialize.)

Lessons for the progressive left

To be sure, the referendum vote cannot be read as a victory for Bolivia’s traditional conservative elites. Nor does it necessarily signal a repudiation by the electorate of the MAS party, its political project, or even of Morales himself. As Arkonada notes, Bolivians voted no to re-election, not yes to neoliberalism. And proponents of the popular/ progressive “No” such as ex-MAS governor Rafael Puente argue that their votes gave the anti-reelection coalition its margin of victory.

In any case, the fragmented opposition is far from having an electoral mandate, an alternative program, or a viable candidate to represent its diverse political tendencies. As political analyst Boris Miranda commented after the vote, “While officialdom has many reasons to worry, the opposition has little cause to celebrate.” Not surprisingly, conservative politicians have explicitly rejected the strategy of calling for a recall vote, although Morales has challenged them to do so.  

Even so, the polarized climate resulting from the referendum has emboldened extremist sectors, and the still-unfolding Zapata scandal remains a wild card that MAS opponents on both the left and right are poised to exploit.  The melodrama shows no signs of abating, with new revelations capturing headlines almost daily.  Zapata, who is currently being held in “preventive detention,” faces a string of corruption charges related to influence-trafficking and has implicated high-level government officials in her activities.  A legislative commission is investigating.   

For its part, the MAS, which will continue to control two-thirds of the legislature along with the executive and judicial branches for the next 4 years, faces the immense challenge of maintaining its ambitious investment and redistributive policies in the face of a cooling economy, while repositioning the party for a victory without Morales in 2019. The referendum’s defeat could provide a much-needed opportunity for self-criticism and reflection, with an eye towards promoting internal democracy, defining a new transformative agenda, and cultivating new national leadership— not to mention developing strategies to combat corruption and confront social media challenges.  

Morales has stated that the issue of succession will not be addressed until 2018. Elements of the party and affiliated social movement leadership are reportedly exploring legal and political strategies to permit another run by Morales in 2019, which would be highly controversial. 

Barring this unlikely option, recent speculation has focused on long-term Chancellor David Choquehuanca as a potential MAS presidential candidate. A trusted champion of indigenous causes in the first Morales administration, he has recently gained national and international prominence through his leadership in the campaign to regain Bolivia’s seacoast from Chile. Still, the prospect of another Morales candidacy in 2024 has been encouraged by progressives ranging from Arkonada to Albó.

Meanwhile, as Vice Minister Alfredo Rada has commented, an important lesson that the party could learn from the referendum is that the strategy of “defeating” the right through fragmentation and incorporation of “productive” economic and political elites under the MAS umbrella has not paid off as planned. Concessions granted to lowlands agribusiness and ranching sectors, he suggests, ultimately served to strengthen the conservative political bloc, as these opportunistic allies appear to have deserted the MAS (or at least Morales) at the earliest possible opportunity.

At the same time, the dilution of the MAS party’s revolutionary program in favor of a pragmatic national-popular agenda, and the substitution of a discourse of stability for that of transformative change, has progressively alienated the most ideologically committed segments of the party’s social base while failing to capture the aspirations of new voter constituencies, such as youth. This is similar to the situation that has occurred with the PT party in Brazil after its aggressive turn to pragmatism, as described by Rodrigo Nunes.

For Bolivia’s progressive left, now divided into pro- and anti-MAS factions, a critical question is whether the post-referendum context can provide an opportunity for these barriers to be overcome. The looming economic downturn, with its potential for austerity measures and the rollback of significant gains won by the poor and indigenous majority under Morales, lends a sense of urgency to this challenge.

Could a rejuvenated, more participatory MAS party under new leadership rebuild bridges with popular sectors disaffected from Morales who are part of the constituency for progressive change? Will “popular No” supporters be sufficiently disillusioned with the racist and anti-democratic stance of their erstwhile referendum allies to seek more compatible political alliances?  The hope for a resurgent, more inclusive political left, that can reconnect to the collective energies of Bolivia’s combative popular movements, without succumbing to hegemonic temptations and the domination of outsize personalities, lies somewhere in this direction.

Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner, a NACLA Contributing Editor, and the author of NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments.


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