Bolivia: Elections Deepen Local Democracy

While the results of Bolivia’s April 4 regional and local elections are now officially certified, their significance—who really won and lost—continues to be debated. President Evo Morales's political party MAS has extended the geographic reach of its support, making important gains in the resource-rich lowland regions, a bastion of the right-wing opposition. But the vote also shows that MAS is far from a hegemonic political machine. Moreover, the major political challenge confronting them today is coming not from the largely discredited right, but from emergent new forces on the left, including strong, local grass-roots initiatives.

May 21, 2010

While the results of Bolivia’s April 4 regional and local elections are now officially certified, their significance—who really won and lost—continues to be debated. For President Evo Morales, the vote confirms the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party as the sole political force with strong support throughout the nation. For re-elected Santa Cruz governor Rubén Costas, leader of the regionally-based conservative opposition, his victory means that “the forces of democracy have defeated tyranny.”

However, the elections have exposed a diverse political reality in Bolivia that is more complex than these competing official claims suggest. While MAS has extended the geographic reach of its support, the vote shows that it is far from a hegemonic political machine. Moreover, the major political challenge confronting MAS today is coming not from the largely discredited right, but from emergent new forces on the left, including the growing national Movement Without Fear (MSM) party as well as local grassroots initiatives.

In April, voters elected governors (formerly known as prefects) and legislative assemblies in each of Bolivia’s nine departments, as well as mayors and local councils in 337 municipalities. These will be the first elected regional and local bodies with the power to legislate within the autonomy (decentralization) framework established by the 2009 Constitution. Departmental assemblies are now elected based on a system of mixed popular, provincial, and indigenous representation determined by each department.

For the past five years, opposition to Evo Morales’ government has been headed by prefects of the four lowlands departments, where Bolivia’s natural resource wealth (especially natural gas) is concentrated. In occasional alliance with their counterparts from other regions, this anti-MAS power bloc exploited the regional autonomy issue to bring Bolivia to the brink of a “civil coup” in 2008, demanding departmental control of land and hydrocarbons revenues to benefit local elites. The crisis was eventually contained by adoption of the new Constitution.

In the elections, MAS showed impressive strength by capturing six out of nine governorships, up from three in 2005. In addition to prevailing easily in the western highlands strongholds of Oruro and Potosi, MAS consolidated its hold in La Paz, Cochabamba and the contested department of Chuquisaca by comfortable margins.

The most significant victory for MAS was the governorship of Pando, a lowlands department controlled by the right for the past 28 years. Pando’s ex-prefect Leopoldo Fernández, accused of spearheading the massacre of a dozen MAS supporters in September 2008, has been in jail for the past 19 months. The MAS gubernatorial vote in Pando increased from 6% in 2005 to 50% in 2010.

This victory, along with substantial MAS gains in the other lowlands departments (Tarija, Beni, and even Santa Cruz) has significantly fractured the hold of the regionally based conservative opposition. Except for a strong win in Santa Cruz, the margin of opposition victories in these departments was less than 10%. This will allow significant MAS representation in all nine legislative assemblies, where new statutes clarifying how autonomy will work will soon be up for consideration.

Despite these successes, nationally, MAS won only 50% of the gubernatorial vote, compared to 64% of the presidential vote in last December’s election. This represents a loss of one million votes in just four months. MAS gained the two-thirds vote necessary for control of important legislative assembly matters only in the five western departments.

Locally, while MAS mayoral candidates prevailed in two-thirds of Bolivia’s 337 municipalities—up from 30% in 2004—they were defeated in seven out of 10 major cities (although none who lost were incumbents). In the capital city of La Paz, MAS lost the mayoralty with 35% of the vote—‘14 points behind the victorious MSM party, a center-left progressive force that broke with MAS earlier this year. In comparison, Morales won 80% of the La Paz vote last December.

In the neighboring indigenous city of El Alto, whose voters backed Morales last year by a margin of 90%, the MAS mayoral candidate prevailed but with only 39% of the vote. A 29-year old indigenous female candidate—political outsider “La Sole”—captured 30% of the vote, followed by the MSM candidate with 24%. The MSM—a regional urban party virtually unknown outside La Paz before the elections-also won unexpected victories in Oruro and in indigenous mining communities north of Potosí, which have long been bastions of MAS loyalty. The MSM has been critical of MAS for perceived anti-democratic tendencies, which it claims are subverting the principles of the new Constitution. In total, MSM elected 20 mayors and emerged as a presence in 120 municipalities, drawing many successful candidates from the ranks of popular ex-MAS dissidents. It is now the second largest party in Bolivia.

In many cases (both urban and rural), MAS candidates were defeated by emergent new micro-local political organizations. In the western highlands community of Achacachi, home of the militant indigenous Ponchos Rojos (Red Ponchos)—where Morales won 98% of the vote in December—the MAS mayoral candidate placed third behind a local party and the MSM. In the coca-growing Yungas region, a new party led by dissident local coca farmers (and an ex-MAS Senator) prevailed in six localities. MAS also lost in Plan Tres Mil, a poor indigenous district of Santa Cruz whose residents led massive demonstrations in support of the government in 2008.

Many of these local defections—and MSM gains or victories—occurred where the MAS party hierarchy imposed unknown or unpopular candidates on its base organizations, ignoring grassroots preferences. In Santa Cruz, MAS promotion of a former opposition leader as mayoral candidate and recruitment of ex-fascist Santa Cruz Youth Union members as party cadre alienated many indigenous supporters. A former beauty queen imposed by the party leadership in Beni lost a key gubernatorial race for MAS after proposing that convicted murderers should work in the mines (threatening the job security of the existing labor force).

Another MAS tactic that backfired was the party’s ferocious attack on the MSM for its decision to campaign independently, including accusations of a “neoliberal conspiracy” and charges of corruption against MSM leader Juan del Granado. Del Granado, the former La Paz mayor, is a respected human rights lawyer who successfully prosecuted dictator Luis Garcia Meza in the early 1980s at great personal risk. As political scientist Miguel Centellas has commented, the “heavy-handed MAS rhetoric that tarnishes all opponents with one brush” alienated many local voters.

Whether the strong MSM showing in April signals the rise of a “democratic left opposition” in Bolivia, as some analysts have suggested or merely reflects a transitory protest vote, remains to be seen. Del Granado has denied future presidential aspirations. Moreover, he emphasizes that MSM will not be a traditional opposition to MAS “because we are part of the process of change and transformation.” If the MAS government acts in accordance with the new Constitution, del Granado says, the MSM will support them.

More fundamentally, the April vote can be viewed as demonstrating the persistent independence and political diversity of the Bolivian electorate, especially at the local level. As Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network told NACLA, “Bolivian voters build in their own checks and balances by electing leaders from different parties at different levels of government.” The same voter may have different priorities in national and local elections.

In the past, Ledebur says, this vote-splitting practice has frequently led to stalemates and blocked governmental initiatives. In the major cities and departmental capitals, where close April races have resulted in divided representation on municipal councils, third-place candidates will now have crucial “swing votes” and effective veto power. Whether these new configurations will lead to compromise or paralysis, she notes, remains to be seen.

Ledebur cautions against viewing the diversity of voters’ regional and local preferences as a rejection of the MAS government. While Bolivians are not inclined to give MAS or Evo Morales a “blank check,” they have repeatedly ratified the advance of the government’s political and economic project, including in the most recent election. This is not inconsistent with the vote for MSM, which largely supports the MAS program.

But the April vote raises a warning signal about how the process of change is being carried out. The electorate clearly wants less concentration of power, more dialogue, and more respect for local initiative. How the MAS government chooses to respond to this challenge is an important issue for the future.

If there is a clear message from the April elections, it is that local democracy is alive and well in Bolivia.

Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and a NACLA research associate.


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