The polls in Bolivia closed at 5pm but as midnight approached with no official results, or even exit polls or quick counts, suspicions and tensions were growing. Then the night took an unexpected turn. After hours of delays and excuses, Unitel, the TV channel with the largest audience in Bolivia, finally made public the projected results based on the quick count by the Ciesmori polling firm. The results were explosive. Not even the greatest optimists in the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) campaign had imagined such a number. Luis Arce Catacora would easily surpass 50 percent of votes and win without any need for a runoff. Former president Carlos Mesa, who had expected to receive the “strategic votes” of all those who wanted to keep the MAS out of power, was more than 20 points behind.
All of the talk during the campaign and on election day about how Arce had limited appeal and little chance of winning more votes beyond core MAS supporters was blown sky high, and the MAS began to prepare to return to the Palacio Quemado with a landslide victory. Even if their opponents had managed to unite behind a single candidate, which they failed to do, it would still not have been enough. By rapidly recognizing the MAS victory and congratulating Arce in the early hours of the morning, interim president Jeanine Áñez undoubtedly helped to ease the tension, as the official count slowly dragged on after an exemplary day of voting following all the protocols in pandemic times.
The MAS also won a majority in congress. The party won by 65 percent to 32 percent in its stronghold of La Paz, but even gained a notable 35 percent in Santa Cruz, the department where the conservative Luis Fernando Camacho won. In November 2019, Camacho had been the leader of the street protests, which, along with a policy mutiny and military ultimatum, lead to the overthrow of then-President Evo Morales and his exile in Argentina.
After these results, Arce will have to forge his own presidential leadership, with Evo Morales returning to Bolivia weaker than before, but undoubtedly still influential, and with Vice President David Choquehuanca distanced from Morales and with his own political base in the Aymara communities of the altiplano surrounding La Paz. Arce will also have to prove that his economic model—one of the trump cards of the MAS in its decade and a half in power—works as well in times of economic crisis, uncertainty, and pandemic as it did during the commodity boom. In his victory speech early Monday morning, he was humble, called for a self-critique, and promised to pursue national unity.
What was at stake in this election? More than party platforms, this election was between competing understandings of the 14 years under the MAS and the nearly 12 months under Jeanine Áñez, a conservative senator who—taking advantage of the power vacuum after Evo Morales was overthrown and MAS senator and senate president Adriana Salvatierra refused to succeed him—unexpectedly took over the Palacio Quemado.
From the start, the Áñez regime demonized the MAS, trying to reduce the party to a “narcoterrorist” force and characterizing its administrations as an awful mix of authoritarianism, corruption, and waste, a far cry from the images of economic success broadly held before Morales’s overthrow by even international financial agencies. In this radical narrative, some dramatically spoke of a “dictatorship” in which patriots could only speak in whispers in cafés for fear of the persecution of Indigenous authoritarianism. At times, the government also called for strengthening institutions and restoring the republic. But as usually happens in antipopulist revolts, revanchism won out over institutionalism, repression over inclusion, and the chaotic and deficient new administration was quickly overwhelmed by the crisis generated by Covid-19, which has caused at least 8,000 deaths by official count.
Many saw the Áñez government as an effort by the white middle and upper classes to recover the power they had partly lost since 2006. But after the collapse of November 2019, the MAS managed to rebuild itself in Congress, where it retained a two-thirds majority, and in the streets, where it remained the only political force with a popular base nationwide. At times, the Áñez regime that overthrew Morales echoed the so-called Liberating Revolution that removed Perón from the Argentine presidency in 1955. Many denounced Evo as a “runaway tyrant,” as others had called Perón, and failed to see that, despite everything, MAS still spoke for a sizable plebeian ethno-social group in Bolivia. Drawing on the earlier Argentine playbook, Interior Minister Arturo Murillo overplayed his repressive hand, threatening persecution and imprisonment for a wide range of social and labor movements. This had the paradoxical effect of spurring those under threat to identify once again with a MAS they had grown distant from in the last years under Morales.
In strictly electoral terms, Carlos Mesa took for granted that he would be the choice of all those who wanted to avoid the return of the MAS at all costs. He may not have even tried to connect with the Indigenous and popular electorate. But as the elections showed too clearly, the visceral rejection of the MAS that completely dominated social media and the media was hardly dominant among voters. At most it amounted to 30 percent of the ballots.
The second key data point from the elections is the difficulty that leaders from Santa Cruz have in winning support outside the region. Camacho, who seemed to have won over many residents of La Paz in 2019, only netted a handful of votes there in 2020, even as he consolidated support on his home turf. Santa Cruz chose its own “strategic vote” to defend its regional and regionalist interests.
This victory clear shows that it was posible to win with a candidate other than Evo Morales. It was his efforts at reelection that led his government into a dead end in 2019, making possible the “counterrevolution” that ended up removing him from power. Ultimately, the counterrevolution proved incapable of uprooting the MAS. But this should not obscure the widespread rejection of Morales’s attempt at reelection and the implosion of the MAS way of governing in the crisis. The November uprising turned into a coup, though no one should overlook the role of the massive protests (from below) and the deep crisis (from above) in helping to explain the tumultuous fall of the MAS from power.
Yet state repression and the loss of power injected a new energy into the 2020 electoral campaign, which the 2019 campaign had entirely lacked because trust in state power had replaced mobilization from below. The crisis also enabled the rise of a new group of leaders, like Andrónico Rodríguez, who took over from Morales in the coca unions. A campesino with a degree in political science, Rodríguez expresses the new sociology of the rural world, ever more connected with the cities. Many such “Andrónicos” rose up in this campaign, pushing aside various discredited social leaders with more proprietary visions of politics and the state.
From the start, the MAS acted with greater autonomy relative to Evo Morales, exiled in Buenos Aires and limited in his movements. The congressional representatives, with Eva Copa at the head, opted for moderation instead of heeding the calls for total resistance that came from Argentina. The truth is there was no massive demand to “Bring back Evo.” Instead, there was a rejection of the cruel acts of the new government, such as the burning of Indigenous wiphala flags in anti-MAS protests and the racist tone of other episodes like the continuous references to the “MAS hordes” and opinion columns about “public enemy number one” or the “cancer of Bolivia.” The “strategic vote” of the citizens in the rural world and the urban periphery went decisively to Arce, and that made for his final margin.
In contrast with some of the international solidarity movement against the coup, which lost itself in empty slogans, the MAS managed to come to terms with the new period and bet on an electoral path, with all the compromises that meant, instead of resistance in the streets. That was true above all for those who stayed in Bolivia, who understood the complexity of what had happened in November. The process that led to the military’s “suggestion” that Morales resign, which technically amounts to a coup, was part of a broader multi-dimensional crisis, which also included the initial popularity of Áñez and the discrediting of Morales. The relative autonomy of the MAS left it more room to maneuver, even as the moderate tone of Arce—a mild-mannered economist forced to play the game of the campaign, singing or shooting baskets in public—along with his prior prestige as architect of economic prosperity, enabled them to respond to the attacks from the Right without overacting.
The challenge for the MAS will be to govern without the power it had between 2006 and 2019. That “heroic” period of the revolution is gone, not to return. This is hardly a progressive moment across the region, and the MAS may have to become more open to sharing power and leaving power, without seeing any departure from office as a complete catastrophe.
The setting is more favorable than anyone could have imagined before the election. The massive margin of votes amounts to fundamental electoral capital in a still-polarized context, while key political, economic, and social actors have already made peace with possibility of a return of the MAS.
In the end, the “String Revolution”—as the November uprising came to be known, thanks to strings run across the streets as roadblocks—faded away despite all the books, the newspaper supplements, and the sustained efforts to forge a narrative of “liberation.” But it remains as a reminder that urban insurrections have been a constant in Bolivian national history—progressive ones as well as reactionary ones—and that the new government must work to reconcile parts of society split apart by ethnic, social, and regional fractures. To have found a way out of this impasse through the ballot box is no small achievement in these tumultuous times, for Bolivia or for the continent as a whole.
This article was originally published in Spanish on Le Monde diplomatique, edición Cono Sur.
Translated from Spanish by Mark Healey.
Pablo Stefanoni is a journalist and historian. He is the editor-in-chief of Nueva Sociedad.
Correction: an earlier version of this translation mistakenly identified the senate president as Eva Copa. The correct name is Adriana Salvatierra.