Bolivians will head to the polls again on May 3 for the first presidential election in 18 years without Evo Morales as a candidate.
The “do-over” vote—for president, vice-president, and members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, to be followed shortly by regional elections—has been called by Bolivia’s transitional president Jeanine Añez, who assumed power after Morales’s forced resignation on November 10 in a civic-military coup. A law adopted on November 24 annulled the results of the disputed October 20 election which led to Morales’s ouster, while guaranteeing a spot for his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party on the new ballot. But it also ratified the existing constitutional provision that bars candidates, including Morales, from seeking more than two consecutive terms.
The compromise elections law was passed unanimously by the MAS-controlled legislature, in an effort to defuse the deadly violence that convulsed the country for weeks after the contested October 20 vote. At least 35 people were killed and 700 wounded in the post-electoral conflict, almost all following the coup.
Along with the elections law, negotiations brokered by the Catholic Church, the European Union, and the United Nations forced the Añez government to withdraw its troops from civilian conflict zones, and to annul a controversial decree granting impunity to the military in repressing social protests. In exchange, anti-coup protesters lifted the massive road blockades that had paralyzed food and gas deliveries to the cities for weeks, allowing an effective truce to be declared with the promise of imminent elections.
Añez supporters are flaunting the call for elections as a significant step towards the restoration of political normalcy and democracy in Bolivia. In reality, while the killings and violent clashes have ceased, the country remains highly polarized and politically unstable, with explosive tensions simmering just below the surface. In no small part, this is due to the confrontational discourse and vengeful actions of a de facto regime that is governing widely outside its “caretaker” mandate, stoking divisiveness and eroding the prospects for a peaceful political reconciliation.
The De Facto Government
As has been widely reported, Jeanine Añez, an obscure right-wing Senator from the lowlands Beni region, acceded to the presidency when a power vacuum—created by the resignation of several MAS Congressional leaders in the wake of Morales’s departure—put her next in the line of succession. Her party received only 4 percent of the vote in October, and she herself did not seek re-election. According to some accounts, the MAS leadership agreed to her succession in a moment of desperation, in exchange for the promise of Morales’s safe passage out of the country.
Añez assumed the presidency with the support of the army and the Constitutional Court—the same institution that earlier upheld Morales’s “right” to run for a fourth presidential term. However, she failed to gain the legislative quorum required by the Constitution for presidential succession. According to conflicting narratives, MAS deputies either boycotted the session or stayed away out of fear.
Despite her limited mandate as a “caretaker” president charged only with preparing the country for new elections, within days Añez wiped out Morales’s cabinet and installed a new leadership team with deep ties to Bolivia’s right-wing sectors. For the past eight weeks, the Añez regime, elected by no one, has mounted an aggressive and vindictive campaign to undermine the MAS party by reversing its policies, persecuting its leaders, and intimidating its supporters. Not coincidentally, these tactics have served to energize the regime’s conservative base ahead of the upcoming election.
For starters, Añez deployed the armed forces to repress Indigenous anti-coup protesters at Sacaba and Senkata, leaving a toll of 19 dead and several hundred wounded. In its recent report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) characterized these incidents as massacres, with massive human rights violations committed by the military under the government’s illegal impunity decree. To date, the interim government has refused to accept responsibility for these killings. The IACHR has called for an independent investigation.
The regime has issued an Interpol arrest warrant for Morales, charging him with terrorism and sedition for allegedly inciting the “siege of cities” carried out by MAS-affiliated protesters after the coup. Morales, currently a political refugee in Argentina, has assembled a formidable international legal defense team with the help of President Alberto Fernández, including famed Spanish jurist Baltazar Garzón.
Meanwhile, nine former MAS officials are holed up in the Mexican embassy in La Paz, having been denied safe passage to Mexico by the Añez government. Añez recently caused an international uproar by expelling three senior Spanish and Mexican diplomats who were alleged to be plotting the asylum-seekers’ escape.
To date, more than 100 MAS government officials have been detained or are facing criminal charges, ranging from terrorism to electoral fraud to misuse of state resources. Añez has announced that close to 600 former authorities of the executive branch and their families are under investigation.
In the Chapare, the highly-organized coca-growing region that historically has been a bastion of MAS support and is now the epicenter of anti-coup resistance, residents face severe government reprisals. Following the police mutiny of November 7-8—a key event leading to the coup—protesters burned down a local tourist hotel owned by Arturo Murillo (now interior minister) and torched all nine police stations, causing the police to flee and cede security operations to coca union federation guards.
Murillo has threatened to disenfranchise the entire region in the upcoming election if the police are not permitted to reenter. In view of the hard-line anti-drug discourse now emanating from the presidential palace, coca growers anticipate a crackdown that could undermine their livelihoods and the successful system of community-controlled coca production inaugurated by Morales.
Domestic press censorship and media blackouts have been rampant under the de facto regime. TeleSUR, Russia Today, and other foreign outlets have been eliminated from the national cable system, while 53 community radio stations have been shuttered. While the new minister of communications has recanted her earlier pledge to crack down on free speech, three journalists were detained on New Year’s Eve and charged with terrorism and sedition for criticizing the government on social media.
The regime has overhauled the MAS government’s foreign policy, shifting allegiances in Venezuela from President Maduro to rebel opposition leader Juan Guaidó, restoring diplomatic ties with the United States and Israel, and expelling 700 Cuban doctors that were backbone of Morales’s public health system. It has pulled Bolivia out of the left-leaning ALBA and UNASUR alliances and joined the U.S.-backed Lima Group. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has lifted a long-standing ban on foreign aid to Bolivia, imposed when Morales failed to cooperate with U.S. counter-narcotics efforts.
Añez’s development minister has declared his support for privatizing public enterprises and shrinking the state, raising the specter of a return to past austerity policies and control of the economy—including natural resources such as lithium—by transnational corporations. What’s more, the interim president’s divisive racist discourse—ranging from deleted past tweets scorning “satanic” Indigenous celebrations, to more recent comments characterizing MAS leaders as “savages”—suggests to many Indigenous Bolivians that the significant gains achieved under Morales’s decolonization policies are at risk of being dismantled.
The Electoral Landscape
While the electoral timeline established by the interim government is longer than initially planned—leaving more time for Añez to wreak damage—the deadlines for party registration (January 24) and candidate selection (February 3) are relatively short.
Facing all these daunting challenges, the MAS party is struggling to realign itself and identify a new presidential slate. Predictably, without Morales as the party’s charismatic unifying and controlling force, competing factions have emerged, along with expressions of dissidence not publicly revealed in the past.
Still, Morales remains highly visible as the party’s official campaign manager operating from Argentina, commenting frequently on social media. He has announced that the slate will be officially chosen at a meeting of party leaders in Argentina on January 19, followed by a mass mobilization in Bolivia on January 22, when his constitutional rule officially ends.
Among the candidates known to be under consideration, David Choquehuanca—the Aymará leader who served for 11 years as Morales’s foreign minister—is backed by the party’s La Paz and Santa Cruz chapters. Andrónico Rodriguez, the dynamic young leader of the Chapare coca grower’s union federation, has the strong support of his region, and has been suggested as a possible vice-presidential candidate.
Other possible candidates include Luis Arce, former economy minster who is widely credited as the architect of Morales’s successful economic policies; Diego Pary, a Quechua activist who was Morales’s most recent foreign minister; and Adriana Salvatierra, the former MAS Senate president and a hardcore party militant. All of these candidates are identified, more or less, as Morales loyalists.
Since the coup, a more moderate, dissident wing of the party has gained increasing prominence, especially in the Legislature, where new Senate president Eva Copa has led negotiations with the Añez government. Copa, 32 years old and representing the Indigenous city of El Alto, has openly criticized the hardline wing of MAS closest to Evo in Argentina, as a “privileged group” that has damaged the party. She has accused Adriana Salvatierra, who resigned her Senate leadership postafter the coup, of handing over the presidency to the opposition in an effort to save her father, a former MAS minister, from prosecution.
Copa defends her legislative pragmatism—attacked by some as complicity with the regime—as a necessary strategy to move beyond the current political crisis. “We didn’t have the money to escape,” she says, “so we have to face the consequences.” While Copa has denied any interest in seeking the presidency at this time, she has challenged party leaders to ensure that the MAS ticket is not dictated from Argentina, but reflects a popular consensus of the party’s bases in Bolivia.
Opposition forces are also divided, but may be taking steps towards greater unity. Three candidates who participated in the October election have declared their intention to run again: Carlos Mesa, the center-right former president who was Morales’s chief rival, winning 36.5 percent of the vote; Chi Hyun Chung, an evangelical conservative who took 8.8 percent; and Félix Patzi, Aymará governor of La Paz, who captured 1.25 percent.
In addition, Luis Fernando “Macho” Camacho, the charismatic Santa Cruz civic leader who was catapulted to national fame as the popular face of the coup that toppled Morales, has announced his candidacy. Camacho is a prosperous member of Santa Cruz’s new economic elite, whose family wealth derives from insurance, agribusiness, and natural gas distribution. He has deep ties to the far right, as former director of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista, a proto-fascist paramilitary youth group known for publicly beating and humiliating Indigenous people in Santa Cruz during the secessionist revolt of 2006-2008.
Also a born-again Christian, who famously laid a bible on the Bolivian flag when entering the presidential palace to demand Morales’s resignation, Camacho has been dubbed “the Bolsonaro of Bolivia.” It was his aggressive combination of “bible and balls,” say political analysts Pablo Stefanoni and Fernando Molina, that succeeded in radicalizing the middle class-led regional protests against perceived electoral fraud and channeling them into a national police-civic-military coup. In the process, Mesa’s more moderate center-right leadership was completely eclipsed.
Camacho has also demonstrated considerable political skill in reaching out to, and pacting with, disparate popular sectors that have accumulated grievances against Morales, including dissident Yungas coca growers, miners, transportation workers, and even some peasant organizations. Most notably, his designated running mate for vice president is Marco Pumari, an Indigenous miner’s son who has led a long popular struggle around lithium extraction in Potosí, as well as recent anti-Morales protests in the region.
The Camacho-Pumari ticket was announced on New Year’s Eve with great fanfare, together with a 14-point program for a “united Bolivia, with dignity, freedom, and democracy.” The slate offers a powerful antidote to Camacho’s racist history, as well as an image of east-west popular unity that belies his elitist, revanchist roots, with the potential for broad appeal.
Still, the alliance came close to self-destructing before it began. After initially denying their political aspirations, Camacho and Pumari shared their mutual interest in a joint ticket last November. Two weeks later, the partnership fractured when Camacho accused Pumari of having demanded a substantial payoff in the form of cash and ministry quotas, with audiotapes of the conversation leaked to social media and CNN. Each agreed to run separately.
A few days later, Camacho met in Washington, DC with Luis Almagro, head of the OAS, who heralded his “commitment to democracy.” The next day, he was a guest speaker at the Inter-American Dialogue, a DC-based think tank, where activist group Code Pink protested him and the event. Two weeks later, the alliance was publicly revived.
Interim president Añez has called for an opposition summit to unify the anti-MAS vote—presumably behind Camacho, with whom she has close political ties. In a sense, the Camacho-Pumari alliance was literally made in the presidential palace, when Añez, after her swearing-in ceremony, appeared on the balcony flanked by the duo.
While it’s still early in the game, the MAS has trumpeted recent polls showing the party’s still unnamed candidate in first place with 21 percent of the vote, as compared to 16 percent for Añez (who denies any intention to run), 16 percent for Camacho and Pumari combined (with each running separately at the time of the poll), and 14 percent for Mesa. Still, in a second ballot scenario, only 24 percent say they will vote for MAS while 47 percent would vote for an opposition candidate.
The youth vote, representing approximately one-third of the electorate last October, will be even more critical this time around, since the registry will be updated to add newly-eligible voters. Significant numbers of youth turned against Morales in October to join the so-called “Revolution of the Pititas”—named for the makeshift cords strung across streets by novice protesters, which Morales ridiculed.
Camacho has significant appeal for this sector, which is strongly influenced by social media and susceptible to manipulation. The IACHR identified some 60,000 false twitter accounts created between November 9 and 17 that generated more than 1 million tweets in support of Camacho and Añez. Still, the coup has also spawned a resurgence of pro-MAS militancy among youth in places like El Alto, who were previously alienated from the struggles of their parents and grandparents.
As anthropologist Nicole Fabricant has argued, to defeat Bolivia’s ascendant right-wing forces—which will continue to be nourished and fortified by the Añez regime during the run-up to the election—will require a broad united front of left-Indigenous groups across the historic pro- and anti-Morales divide. For the MAS, choosing a presidential slate that is more independent of Morales could help to appeal to popular opposition sectors. For the anti-Morales left, which has been disturbingly silent regarding the Añez regime’s abuses, taking a stand against political persecution, racist discourse, and the erosion of democracy occurring under the de facto government could go a long way towards reconciliation.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner, a member of NACLA's Editorial Board, and the author of NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments.