Sunday’s Bolivian Regional Election Primer: MAS Solidifies its Ruling Status as the Political Opposition Falters

• Morales could become too powerful for his own good as divisiveness in his nation thrives

Four months have passed since the re-election of President Evo Morales in December 2009. Bolivia is gearing up for yet another round of balloting. On April 4 (Easter Sunday), the ostensibly 95% Catholic population of Bolivia will exercise its civic duty with the blessing of its Catholic bishops. This time, voters will be electing governors for the country’s nine departments as well as the municipal leadership. While President Morales’ party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), is expected to win handily the governorships of five of the nine departments, the remaining four races will pit MAS-muscle against opposition parties anxious for a fight but with decreased political weaponry at their disposal.

Bolivia is in the middle of a historic process, one which is unique both in terms of the nature of its leadership and the social values that the ruling party preaches. Evo Morales’ presidency is unprecedented in South America, as he is the first indigenous head of state on the continent and emphatically stands behind a platform of radical social reform and special recognition of indigenous rights. Why else would he have called for renaming the country the “Pluricultural State of Bolivia?” Concurrently, Morales’ original nationalization of energy reserves (which he now is preparing to modify) was done to mollify the country’s native people.

Furthermore, no other constitution has been so overwhelmingly well-received by the public than Morales’ draft, which was demonstrated in the referendum in early 2009 that confirmed it. With articles implementing previously non-explicit indigenous rights as well as the nationalization of natural resources and the recognition of Bolivia as a secular (rather than Catholic) state, the new constitution brings a welcome development when it comes to social equality for emerging South American left-leaning democratic states. Many orthodox political voices reacted with skepticism to the political momentum that was officially endorsed by MAS, as some bemoaned the dwindling opposition to the ruling party and the co-option of social groups under MAS’ umbrella of influence. However, as the results of Easter Sunday’s election are likely to further confirm this trend, it becomes harder to defy the power of a political party that consistently gains the endorsement for its policies from a majority of Bolivians.

The Plurinational State of Bolivia is split into nine official departments: Beni, Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, La Paz, Oruro, Pando, Potosí, Santa Cruz, and Tarija. Santa Cruz is the center of the affluent and European-centric opposition against Morales and MAS, even going so far as to have claimed partial autonomy alongside Beni, Tarija, and Pando. This position was taken as a reaction against Morales’ policies, especially the reforms included in the 2007 draft constitution. The governors of these four traditionally hold out states are all established opposition leaders, and this Sunday’s elections will test their individual strengths and the popularity of these hold out departmental governments. The other five departments are expected to turn out to be easy victories for their MAS candidates; as published in Bolivia’s La Prensa, opinion polls from Captura Consulting have estimated their likely electoral outcomes for each region: La Paz, César Cocarico with almost 50%; in Potosí, Félix Gonzales with 52%; in Chuquisaca, Esteban Urquizo with 52%; in Cochabamba, Edmundo Novillo with 51%; and in Oruro, Santos Tito with 41%.

Obstacles for the Opposition Parties
Opposition parties, including Plan Progreso para Bolivia-Convergencia Nacional (PPB-CN), Consejo Popular (CP), and the Frente de Unidad Nacional (UN), are facing internal issues that threaten to further debilitate these parties as they prepare for Sunday’s balloting. Following his defeat by Evo Morales in the 2009 presidential election, and in order to evade corruption counter-charges that were brought against him in December, the leader of the Nueva Fuerza Republicana party, Manfred Reyes Villa, has all but disappeared from the public sphere. He later was confirmed to be hiding out in Miami, entirely cut off from the local elections in Bolivia and claiming his self-enforced exile was the result of a ploy by MAS to keep him out of the picture.

Reyes Villa is not the only opposition leader facing legal difficulties, which dampen existing across-the-board prospects for any electoral success for the anti-MAS parties. The former head of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Branko Marinkovic, is currently living in Brazil following charges of terrorism leveled against him on grounds of his supposed involvement in a mercenary paramilitary cell that was discovered in his department last April. The timing of these charges, as well as the opposition’s response that all allegations have been concocted by the MAS leadership, has only served to further polarize the political atmosphere surrounding the election races as they come to a climax. While MAS supporters, known as masistas, view these charges as spurious and an attempt to procure the fulfillment of justice being applied against corrupt officials, key opposition figures find themselves being badgered by what they see as MAS’ manipulations.

One objection that has been made by both MAS as well as the opposition is the possible inaccuracy of the public opinion polls that attribute a disputed vote-share regarding specific races. Statistics, though extensive, are projections and cannot predict exact outcomes. While public opinion polling is a concrete way to launch an election analysis, it should not be viewed as the sole component of such an examination. As any statistician would maintain, there is a systematic bias toward urban centers as opposed to rural areas when opinion polling takes place throughout a country. Therefore, the support for MAS may be understated due to the fact that many masistas could have been excluded from the poll since they reside in rural areas.

Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando
Santa Cruz’s incumbent candidate, Ruben Costas, has been the leader of the prosperous, resource-rich and European-centric regional powerhouse and a prominent opposition figure for the past five years. He also has been a voice of staunch disapproval of many of Morales’ presidential policies. Expected to gain 49% of the vote on Sunday, he stands a good chance to retain his mandate as governor of the most anti-MAS department in Bolivia. However, MAS is attempting to unseat him in a hard-fought campaign, with its candidate, Jerjes Justiniano, who pollsters predict will win in the neighborhood of 30.9% of the vote. Therefore, a MAS victory is highly unlikely, especially considering Costas’ home field advantage, but it is important to note that every percentage point of support gained by MAS is a loss for Costas. The chipping away of support in the opposition’s stronghold has begun in Santa Cruz, and despite a projected victory for Costas, the vote distribution will give an indication of how much support MAS has gained through its hard-hitting campaign. It could possibly even begin to toll a death knell for the opposition at the hands of Morales and MAS.

In Tarija, the moderately anti-MAS incumbent, Mario Cossio, is tied at 40% in opinion polls, with the candidate from MAS, Carlos Cabrera, who is a former university rector and popular public figure. Nevertheless, Ipsos predicts an opposition victory for Cossio, whom the polling firm expects to edge out Cabrera with 50.4%. This tight race could produce a loss for the opposition, thereby placing greater control of the departmental government under the direction of MAS, as well as making any comeback in a future election unlikely as Morales continues to consolidate his strength in these new bastions of support, although many of these trends could be altered by a last-minute opposition surge.

The election race in Beni is unfolding like the plot of a Hollywood movie treatment, with the opposition candidate and ex-prefect Ernesto Suárez, pitted against 26-year-old former Miss Bolivia, Jessica Jordan for MAS. Suárez has 42% support in pre-election polls, while Jordan trails with 35%. While media attention is locked on Jordan and her campaign, it is unlikely that her political platform is the primary vector attracting wide public interest. Morales’ vice president, Alvaro García Linera, has personally endorsed her candidacy, and has declared that he and Morales will be her most ardent supporters in carrying out her campaign promises in the event of her victory. García Linera is playing the “empowerment to female leaders” card in recent speeches to the populace as Jordan ramps up her campaigning with press conferences and meet-and-greets. Nevertheless, it seems like Jessica Jordan might not have been what Bolivian female rights advocates had in mind as their poster-girl.

Rounding out the exciting races is the one in Pando. Not even two years ago, the world awoke to violent conflict in this department, between MAS supporters and the opposition, where over one dozen people were gunned down. The region’s last governor was removed and incarcerated following accusations that he planned the attack, which is reported to have been started by anti-MAS forces. Recently, Paulo Bravo of CP overtook the MAS candidate, Luis Flores, to achieve 41% to Flores’ 39%. Flores is the former mayor of the only city in the department, Cobija. While Bravo decried previous estimates that placed him behind as “just one more poll,” should Flores defeat him, it will be the first time a MAS governor has ever been elected in the department. “The polls in Pando always show us behind MAS, but in the end, we always win… It doesn’t scare us, the past 7 elections in Pando and their 7 [pre-election] polls showed us losing and all 7 times we ended up winning,” Bravo stated in a translated interview with La Razón. Nevertheless, if the recent turnaround in the polls turns out to be accurate, Bravo’s statement could prove to be prophetic.

All MAS, all the time – a threat to Democracy?

While the outcome of Sunday’s elections will provide an updated view of the strength and limitations of Morales’ regional influence, one thing is certain: MAS’ leadership will continue to predominate in Bolivian politics, perhaps even winning support in key opposition departments. The potential drawback to this expansion would be a tendency to force out legitimate opposition parties which represent minority but important interests in Bolivia. Masistas will be quick to emphasize the authenticity and popularity of the Morales administration, as the president was not only re-elected in December with an overwhelming majority of greater than 60% of the ballots, but MAS also enjoys a strong legislative majority and a recently appointed MAS-friendly judiciary. Understandably, opposition leaders declare their concern for Morales’ increased, almost unchecked power, with no group sufficiently formidable to challenge his rule.

Any slippage by the opposition parties has to be considered a serious problem for any democratic society, as it would permit complacency on the part of the ruling-party and prevent real political debate and dialogue from operating on a large scale. For now, Morales’ growing support base primarily consists of the largely indigenous Aymara and Quechua native people of the high plateau. However, Morales’ objective should be to avoid any further alienation of the other social classes and regions that have long fought for autonomy. While the reversal of the long-time subjugation of indigenous Bolivians is the pillar of Morales’ political credo, as well as, deservedly, his personal triumph, as president, he still must be the advocate for all of his people. The trade-off of one oppressed group for another must not be the way forward for the country. When Bolivians take to the polls on Easter Sunday, they will bring with them the power to readjust the scales of democracy in their country and to further authorize the mandate of Evo Morales, a leader with the potential to cater to his entire populace, and one who already has achieved extraordinary successes.