Bolivia’s Precarious Upcoming Election

·        Bolivia’s December 18 presidential election is unlikely to provide stability.

·        Divisiveness, stemming from the country’s deeply fragmented society, is only compounded by a balky political system.

·        The election highlights many issues, but it is largely a referendum on Washington’s advocacy of free trade and neoliberalism, which are deeply unpopular in the country.

·        Washington, with no evidence, blames Venezuela for trying to destabilize Bolivia.

·        Evo Morales may win the presidency, but he will likely have to struggle to stay afloat once in office.

As the December 18 ballot date approaches, Bolivia’s presidential race has been narrowed down to two candidates: Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) who holds a slight lead over Jorge Quiroga of the center right Podemos. Yet there appear to be few outcomes that will offer a path to long-term stability. Each candidate in the race – and there are several more no-hopers in addition to the two frontrunners – represent different segments of Bolivia’s divided society, and whichever candidate eventually assumes the presidency will confront a fragmented and fractious country. Furthermore, the climate surrounding this election is particularly volatile, as the ballot will be staged against the backdrop of the popular street protests that forced two presidents from office between 2003 and 2005.

At the heart of Bolivia’s brewing crisis are the country’s fundamental divisions; economic, ethnic, regional and cultural schisms which blend into a complex picture that defies easy explanation. Since large scale protests paralyzed La Paz this summer, Bolivia has teetered on the brink of crisis, as longstanding social rifts have strained the connective tissues of the nation’s balky political institutions. Those protests catapulted Morales, a prominent local politician known for his ardent support of the legalization of coca leaf production, into the international spotlight and helped propel him into the lead in the race for the country’s presidency. But the road ahead is treacherous, both for Evo and Bolivia, and there is much uncertainty as the election approaches.

For Washington policy makers, the mood is grim. The Bush Administration has a clear view of the election: Quiroga good, Morales intolerable. In the 2002 contest, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (later to be forced out of office) won the popular vote by around one point after a statement by the U.S. ambassador informing the electorate that a Morales victory would result in the termination of aid backfired, legitimizing Morales’ candidacy and casting him as the country’s anti-U.S. option. For the past several months there have been a growing wave of portentous statements being uttered by Bush officials, led by newly minted Thomas Shannon as the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is destabilizing Bolivia, without any evidence ever being produced.

A Nation Divided
The discontent that spawned the public unrest in 2003 and 2005 springs from profound fissures in the nation’s structure. Bolivia, perhaps more than any of its South American neighbors, historically has been plagued by problems of poverty and inequality. According to the World Bank, the country has a poverty rate of 63%, with the indigenous and rural populations disproportionately bearing the brunt of the suffering. The disparities are compounded by regional tensions, as the lowland eastern department of Santa Cruz – which is populated predominantly by Bolivians of European descent who consider themselves more culturally and educationally advanced than those dwelling in the western mountainous parts of the country. The cruceños tend to be fiercely independent, and a strong autonomy movement has deepened the rift between the region and the rest of the country. A dispute this fall over the distribution of congressional seats threatened to derail the presidential elections, and highlighted the strength of the geographic divisions.

Such regional fervor is not just a question of petty provincialism however: Santa Cruz, and equally autonomy-minded Tarija, also happen to contain the bulk of the country’s natural gas reserves and lie near the nation’s oil wells. How these crucial resources were managed, and how their benefits would be distributed, was at the heart of the 2003 and 2005 protests. In those demonstrations, poor Bolivians blockaded streets in La Paz to express their discontent with a political system that they felt excluded from, and to advocate the nationalization of the gas industry.

This struggle over the management of national resources reverberates in a broader arena, as Bolivians deal with the contentious issue of macroeconomic strategy. In the mid-1980s, with Bolivia in the grip of mounting international debt and a stagnated economy, President Victor Paz Estensorro chose to adopt the neoliberal “shock treatments” that overturned decades of state involvement in the economy and set up a free market system. While this approach temporarily stabilized the economy, it ravaged Bolivian society, heightening inequality and poverty, as well as triggering a tempestuous backlash against such policies. For many Bolivians, the possibility of a Morales government means the opportunity to reverse the woeful impact on the country of the Clinton and Bush administration’s Washington Consensus policies. However, there are those, both in Bolivia and Washington, who are uncomfortable with the possibility of this kind of major shift in economic strategy.

Other rifts in the country are less about ideology and vision and more about history. Observers of the Bolivian electorate have noted that ethnic and regional divisiveness has traditionally limited the possibilities of collective political actions along simple socioeconomic lines. Thus, despite a shared indigenous descent, Evo Morales is not being supported by Aymara candidate Felipe Quispe, who, with some evidence, can claim that Morales is a typical politician who will not fulfill his promises.

Watery Glue
If Bolivia’s social and economic fragmentation naturally complicates the political process, the country’s flawed electoral system does nothing to ameliorate the situation. Under Bolivian law, if no presidential candidate receives over 50% of the popular vote during the general election, the race passes to a congressional runoff. The process that follows is a negotiation-laden political drama full of intrigue and horse trading, as the two top candidates jockey to obtain the necessary 51% majority (81 out of 157) votes from the congress. However if neither candidate is able to attract the required majority in congressional voting, the winner of the popular vote assumes the presidency.

The problem is that in Bolivia’s recent history, no presidential candidate has won outright, and in 2002 the eventual victor – Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – only received 22.46% of the votes in the general election. His eventual victory came only after extensive negotiations which afforded him the slimmest of margins in congress, yet his ruling coalition did not include alliances with either Morales (who finished second with 20.94%) or popular independent candidate Manfred Reyes Villa (who finished a close third with 20.914% despite leading the race early on), and thus left many voters feeling disenfranchised. The Bolivian electoral system, far more conducive to manipulation by political power brokers than responding to majorities at the polls, only exacerbates feelings of disenfranchisement among losers, and creates conditions that practically sentence presidents to fail. Without clear mandates, and in the presence of powerful opposition forces, Bolivia should be seen as nearly ungovernable, as is being witnessed today.

As popular “street democracy” has taken hold over the past two years, the likelihood that a government negotiated by politicians will once again crumble is great. Morales has succeeded in politically mobilizing a substantial percentage of the population, and certainly the indigenous groups, can be counted on not to quietly accede to an agreement that ignores them, as has been the case ever since the colonial era.

Politics of Opportunism
The outcome of December 18’s election that possibly would produce the greatest popular unrest would be a victory by Jorge Quiroga (currently polling at 30% of the popular vote), who would most likely be the beneficiary of a majority-producing alliance formed during the congressional phase of the election.

Quiroga, who was Vice President from 1997 to 2001 and served as president from 2001 to 2002 in place of the dying Hugo Banzer, is widely seen as symbolizing the highly controversial Washington Consensus reforms of the 1990s. This allegiance to a widely unpopular economic orthodoxy and perceived slavish loyalty to Washington’s dictates, have combined to diminish the ever canny Quiroga’s popularity. Furthermore, memories of several incidents of violent repression during his eight month stint as president, when, according to the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights (a Bolivian NGO), government forces killed 13 people in political clashes.

Quiroga has run a high profile, if markedly negative, campaign, which has attracted a fair degree of support from the country’s middle and upper classes. His support, however, is far from a majority, and he trails Morales by a significant – if not entirely reliable – margin at the moment. In the event Quiroga does soldier his way to a victory, possibly through an alliance with the centrist Samuel Doria Medina of the Unidad Nacional party (currently polling at just under 10%) or another faction, his status quo government will benefit from Washington’s unabashed support, yet will struggle to convince citizens that the continuation of neoliberal economic policies is a viable solution to the country’s considerable list of problems, and the streets will likely soon be again filled with protestors.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Evo Morales has rightly become the central figure in the presidential campaign: he seems to represent the political awakening of an oppressed population, and his ideology appears to link him to other high profile regional leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner.

Morales, who since the protests of the past summer has become an international figure, is far from a newcomer to Bolivian politics however, as he ran a strong presidential campaign in 2002, and previously served as a congressman from his home district of Chapare. Evo’s recent rise to prominence has drawn attention to his perceived “radical” policies, yet both Morales and his MAS party defy deft definitions, and Morales has no small reputation for political opportunism and neo-orthodoxy when it suits his career requirements.

Indeed, while the official charter of the party declares that “the MAS is currently the expression of the marginalized sectors of society, which, oppressed by the neoliberal model and globalization, are struggling for vindication,” the exact nature of the policies which Evo envisions to cope with such distortions are somewhat fuzzy. He has headlined his campaign with two signature planks – the legalization of coca leaf production and the nationalization of gas – but some question whether the former is feasible, and the latter is actually as revolutionary as it appears. Yet it is hard to disagree with the notion that a new hydrocarbon management program that returns greater benefits to the citizenry would not take the edge off Bolivia’s poverty.

As the election date has approached, however, Morales has been moderating his rhetoric, softening his stance on plans for overhauling foreign multinationals’ involvement in the country’s hydrocarbon industry. Evo has also been busy reassuring Santa Cruz businessmen that their hotels will not be nationalized, and expressing his openness to alliances with Quiroga and Medina, suggesting the possibility of a governing coalition. This effort to increase his domestic and international appeal has succeeded in widening his support at home, yet Washington is nevertheless ever wary over what it sees as the spreading influence of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. What it really wants, of course, is for Morales, if victorious, to emulate the economic conservatism of Brazil’s Lula.

Currently Morales holds a fairly sturdy lead in the polls; at 36% he is around 6% ahead of Quiroga, with his margin likely to swell with the support of currently undecided or undeclared voters. Yet these numbers would nonetheless force a congressional runoff, and whether Morales assumes the presidency either through a negotiated alliance or as a result of a straight plurality, he will have to struggle to fulfill either the nightmares of his opponents or the dreams his supporters so fervently hope to put forward.

The View from Without
Many nations will be watching the Bolivian elections with rapt attention. While the specific ideological concerns obviously vary, the sheer quantity of attention indicates that many observers fear that the election will be a turning point, and not necessarily for the better. The future management of the country’s natural gas reserves already has prompted Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, acting out of support for Petrobras (The Brazilian state owned oil company which has extensive energy-related holdings in Boliva) to meet with Evo Morales to clarify the latter’s stance on foreign investment. Similar economic motivations, combined with an ideological paranoia, will also shape how Washington responds to the election’s outcome and the country’s path in the months ahead. Indeed it is uncertain if Washington will even tolerate Morales’ inauguration and rule.

Such international concern hints at Bolivia’s seemingly dim prospects for the near future. The near certainty of a president with a limited mandate, together with the country’s high levels of internal tension, combines to spell trouble and the path ahead is sure to be rough. Owing to the congressional runoff process, it is practically impossible to predict which candidate will win, only that the victor will face overwhelming difficulties and will be caught between conflicting promises to their constituencies and opposition pressures. Indeed there is good reason to fear that Bolivia may be careening towards tragedy, or at least certainly hard times.