The Other “Most Important Election in a Generation”

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ABOVE: Bolivia’s Plurinational legislative assembly

In a few days, voters will go to the polls. They will not only decide the leadership of their country but will also confront grave challenges to its democratic institutions against the backdrop of the ongoing ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic turmoil.  While this description is sadly relevant in the US, it is equally applicable in Bolivia, where hotly contested elections will take place on October 18.  As the vote approaches, Bolivians must also weigh the options before them in a political landscape shaped by ethnic, socioeconomic, regional and religious divisions created by a long history of prejudice and inequality.  

In 2005, Bolivians elected Evo Morales, an indigenous Aymara politician who rose to prominence as the leader of the Coca growers’ union.  The first indigenous president in Bolivian history, Morales opposed privatization in favor of state ownership of key industries, like natural gas.  He also mobilized impoverished Bolivians and numerous indigenous groups long marginalized in Bolivian politics.  For the next fourteen years, the Bolivian economy grew more rapidly than its neighbors, as government policies and world commodity prices produced a gradual improvement for many Bolivians.  Still remarkably popular, Evo backed a referendum in 2016 that would have amended the 2009 constitution, abolishing term limits and allowing him to run for office again.  The Bolivian people narrowly rejected the amendment, but a Constitutional Court made up of Morales’ supporters allowed him to run again.  

For those from the US, Bolivian elections can seem confusing.  Candidates for multiple parties often run.  To win, a candidate must earn either a simple majority of voters (no electoral college), or earn 40% of the vote AND defeat the nearest competitor by at least 10%.  If no candidate has the sufficient support, then a run-off election between the two leading candidates decides the winner.  This system provides for more direct democracy and the inclusion of a more diverse spectrum of political actors, but it also requires strong faith in the electoral apparatus.  

In the 2019 election, Morales declared victory after claiming just over 47% of the vote – his lowest margin since 2006 and just barely 10% more than his nearest competitor.  Accusations of irregularities in the election soon spread, and the Organization of American States issued a report questioning the integrity of the results (although that report was also questioned).  As pressure mounted from his political opponents at home and abroad, Morales and his Vice-president resigned and went into exile in November of 2019.  In the absence of a constitutionally designated successor, conservative junior lawmaker Jeanine Añez assumed power, promising to hold a new election within 90 days, and pledging not to run in the new elections.  

Her early rhetoric of being a caretaker calmed many, but she soon implemented controversial changes.  A politician with a history of anti-indigenous comments, Añez framed her entry to office as the return of Christian morality to Bolivian politics – a message to Morales and his followers who had recognized Andean beliefs and banned the bible from the Presidential Palace.  Security forces soon removed the wiphala – a multicolored square flag representing Andean indigenous peoples from government buildings.  She also delayed the promised election several times and announced that she would run for president.  Even as protests spread, the novel Coronavirus and ensuing economic crisis dealt a fatal blow to Añez’s campaign. She withdrew from the election calling it “a sacrifice and an honor” to prevent the division of conservative voters.

Today, Luis Arce is the leading candidate for the Bolivian presidency ahead of Carlos Mesa, Luis Fernando Camacho and others. Arce previously served as a minister under Morales, and he leads the MAS party (Movement toward Socialism) in Morales’ absence.  While polling suggests he is ahead, he appears unlikely to earn the majority of voters, and the unification of conservative opposition could make a run-off difficult.  On Saturday, Bolivians will go to the polls in a country still fighting the pandemic, and in which confidence in the legitimacy of their electoral institutions is eroding.  They will cast their votes to decide not only which policies their government will adopt to weather the current crisis, but also to chart the future path of their nation. A victory for Arce could usher in a new era of leadership for the MAS party and country, which has been dominated by a single figure for nearly a decade and a half. The election, and its aftermath, will speak volumes about where Bolivians hope to go next.

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