Will Bolivia’s Elections Usher in a New Wave of Socialism in Latin America?
A year after the leftist leader fled La Paz, Morales is looming over the upcoming vote.
In the final months of 2019, an unexpected series of events unleashed the perfect storm in Bolivia. After a contested election and mass protests, President Evo Morales—who had served for nearly 14 years—saw his hopes for a fourth term dashed. Morales, a controversial leftist leader and Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, fled the country, and an interim government has led La Paz ever since.
Now, a year later, Bolivians will finally head to the polls again on Sunday to elect a new president in what will be the second general election in Latin America since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the region. The stakes are high—the election may determine not only Bolivia’s democratic future, but also the fate of leftist movements in South America and beyond.
Political unrest in Bolivia came to a head last year when Morales, South America’s longest-standing contemporary president, faced numerous charges of electoral fraud after he was declared the winner of the presidential election. Mounting public pressure and large-scale citizen protests ensued, and Morales’s government had the Organization of American States (OAS), where I am a permanent representative, carry out a binding audit of the results. On Nov. 10, the same day the OAS released its report outlining serious irregularities and manipulation, Morales resigned. Although Morales and other left-wing politicians around the world have since denounced his fall from grace—and the OAS’s role in it—as a coup, it is clear that his demise was of his own making.
Since then, Bolivia has continued to confront social and political turmoil under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, previously a conservative senator. One source of controversy was Áñez’s announcement in January that she was running for president, after she had initially ruled herself out and pledged to guide the country to transparent new elections. Another has been the government’s decision to postpone the general elections twice due to the pandemic, which has led to protests throughout the country. In September, Áñez pulled out of the election in a bid to strengthen the campaigns of other candidates running against Morales’s party, Movement for Socialism (known by the Spanish acronym MAS).
Sunday’s elections will be critical as Bolivia attempts both to navigate dire public health and economic crises and to redress the democratic backsliding of the Morales years. According to the latest polls, the general election will likely result in a second-round election between two front-runners: the left-wing MAS candidate Luis Arce, the former finance minister under the Morales administration who is seen as Morales’s successor, and the centrist Carlos Mesa, the former Bolivian president from 2003 to 2005. The MAS controls the congress, but Arce’s former lead is slipping, and the election is getting closer. Mesa may have a greater chance of winning if he is able to garner support from the voting pool that still opposes Morales.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, the fight between the country’s populist left and its centrists—or liberals, as they’re known in Bolivian politics—will reverberate throughout the region.
Today’s political showdown was years in the making. Despite starting off his government in 2006 with the highest-ever popular support of a president in Bolivia’s democratic history, Morales saw his overwhelming popularity that had lasted for more than a decade wane ahead of last year’s election, which culminated in protesters taking to the streets for 21 days to demand his resignation. Under Morales, Bolivia had benefited from high commodity prices and an economic boom, but those periods of growth were later overshadowed by corruption scandals and vanity projects.
The turning point was perhaps Morales’s decision to run for a fourth term, which was unconstitutional. After voters rejected a proposed amendment in 2016 to allow for his indefinite reelection, Morales appealed to his handpicked Electoral Court, which ruled that prohibiting his reelection was a violation of his human rights. Because of this, many voters were already angry, even before reports of electoral fraud culminated in the OAS’s electoral audit.
In the OAS audit, forensic experts and specialists found evidence of major voting irregularities and manipulation, including hidden servers, pre-filled and modified tally sheets, and an inexplicable halt in the recording of results for 23 hours. The OAS thus recommended that Bolivia hold new elections. In recent months, some journalistic and academic analyses have questioned the statistical methodology of the OAS. But according to the OAS, those analyses were based on a false premise: that the results reported in the official tally were valid. The OAS has since explained why its findings were correct, and its original report has been confirmed by the Bolivian attorney general and backed by the European Union.
The future of the MAS has been uncertain since Morales fled the country last November—first to Mexico, and then to Argentina, where he currently lives as a refugee. Morales himself has suffered further blows to his reputation, including when he was accused of statutory rape in August. (His office has denounced the criminal complaint filed by Bolivia’s justice ministry.) And support for his party has slipped slightly since MAS protesters set up blockades that same month, which prevented medical supplies and oxygen from reaching hospitals in the middle of the pandemic, resulting in 40 deaths, according to the Bolivian government. Now, although the MAS candidate, Arce, formerly had a clear lead in the polls, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to shepherd the party back to power and return the country to socialism. The other path would be liberal rule under Mesa, whose main goals include restoring democratic institutions and ensuring democratic checks and balances to power.
This month’s elections come at a time of great political fragmentation not just in Bolivia, but in the entire region, and they’ve become a touchstone for Latin America’s biggest leftist project. Initially, this project was known as the São Paulo Forum, which was launched in 1990 under the leadership of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who would later become president of Brazil; then-Cuban President Fidel Castro; and Néstor Kirchner, who later became president of Argentina. These politicians, and Morales, were part of the region’s left-populist “pink tide,” which has started to recede due to mismanagement and allegations of corruption.
Today, only Argentina, Mexico, and their allies in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua remain bound by this common ideological vision in the region, and, as of 2019, they are now known as the Puebla Group. One of the Puebla Group’s main goals is to support leftist candidates in countries where general elections will be held over the next year, including Ecuador, Chile, and Peru.
In the case of Bolivia, according to Bolivian Foreign Minister Karen Longaric in the Financial Times, the administration of Argentina’s Peronist president, Alberto Fernández, has continued its “disagreeable meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs” on behalf of the MAS, despite complaints to the OAS and the United Nations. This has included promising Morales, who is close to Fernández, that Argentina would work to increase voter turnout among Bolivians living in Argentina to secure a win for Arce and the MAS. If the left can capture Bolivia, then it will put an end to the regional isolation of Argentina’s leftist government and finally occupy the heart of South America again.
Overall, the international network of the Puebla Group has the support of the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, and Mexico; of former Latin American and Spanish presidents including Lula, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero; and of members of leftist European parties such as Spain’s Podemos.
In order to revive its democratic institutions, the committed democracies in the Americas will need to forge a renewed partnership. At the Miami Summit of the Americas in 1994, all 34 governments of the Americas, from Canada to Chile—with the exception of Cuba—were representative democracies ready to commit themselves to the collective defense of democracy and the free market
Yet in the following years, the mood of the region has changed, and increasing polarization has shattered the consensus of the 1990s. Today, strong ideological differences prevail, and some regimes reject the political principles and commitments to representative democracy, open markets, and hemispheric integration on which the post-Cold War, inter-American agenda was built three decades ago.
Amid this polarized climate, the foreign-policy challenges that the region faces are daunting. In addition to political fragmentation, South America’s next presidents will have to deal with a triple crisis: public health, social upheaval, and economic troubles amid inadequate resources and a rise in poverty. Bolivia’s election just may shape how the region begins to address those—and if voters opt for strong democratic institutions and a country governed by law rather than ideology, they will be putting their country and region on the right path.