Patience, memories and a weak, neoliberal opposition – how MAS and Morales returned to power in Bolivia

EVO Morales was forced out of Bolivia under a year ago in an event some felt signalled the end of the left in Latin America.

Nicolas Maduro was still facing resistance from Juan Guaido’s camp, while Jair Bolsonaro was enjoying solid ratings in Brazil.

Bolivia, the continent’s last ‘successful’ socialist nation to hold out against domestic and foreign pressure, appeared to have fallen.

But all was not lost. As Marie-Christine Doran told Redaction Politics last year: “It is very premature to say this is the end of the left in Latin America.

“What happened is not a failure of the left but an attack on it.”

Read more:
Why Evo Morales’ fall isn’t the end of socialism in Latin America

In any sense, Morales’ party, MAS, was facing an uphill battle at the ballot box. Delayed numerous times due to the pandemic, the interim government and right-of-centre parties were looking to banish Bolivian socialism in a democratic fashion.

They never stood a chance.

Luis Arce, Morales’ former economic minister, was presumed president after a stunning result saw him garner over 50 percent of votes in the first round of voting.

Professor Daniel Hellinger told Redaction Politics that Morales’ handling of the democratic crisis and interim president Jeanine Anez’s weakness primarily contributed to his party’s massive victory.

“Why was the margin even greater?  The key factors were the actions of Jeanine Anez and her supporters early after they seized the presidency and the way Evo deftly handled the crisis,” he said.

“Evo played his cards exceptionally well, with determination but patience.  In the face of a coup that threatened to mass murders on the scale of authoritarian governments of the 1980s, he first offered new elections, and after leaving the country offered not to run if new elections were held.

“He used his prestige in the MAS to ensure than Arce, rather than David Choquehuanca, an indigenous politician, was nominated, attempting to dampen down the plurinationalism question.”

After Jeanine Anez withdrew from the race – presumably to make way for an ‘anyone-but-MAS’ party to challenge Arce – MAS’ main opponent was former president Carlos Mesa, who had his own baggage.

Professor Hellinger added: “Carlos Mesa, Arce’s main opponent, was not identified with the extreme right-populism of the Santa Cruz elite, but he is remembered by many Bolivians as a president who governed in accord with unpopular neoliberal policies. 

“While, to his credit, he recognized the demands of the poor Bolivians, he ultimately acceded to pressure from the IMF and other external financial institutions.

“Facing persistent protests and reluctant to use stronger repression, he resigned [in 2005].”

While Morales had lost support in indigenous communities by agreeing to open up new areas for mining, Jeanine Anez was accused of discriminating against indigenous Bolivians, who were, according to Professor Hellinger, “alarmed by the aggressive nature of the right-wing government.”

Morales was deposed after winning a resounding victory in last year’s elections, something the Organisation of American States labelled fraudulent.

But MIT researchers claimed it was the OAS that, in fact, undermined democracy in Bolivia by creating the climate in which the MAS leader was forced out.

“Winning the first round of the elections was a resounding victory for Evo and the MAS and a serious defeat for the OAS, which helped created the political crisis by questioning Evo’s victory last fall,” Professor Hellinger said.

“If you remember, the OAS observer team contended that because and early count showed Morales failing to achieve a 10 percent margin of victory in the first round, the final results showing such a margin must have been manipulated.

“The CEPR and other analysts showed pretty convincingly that in fact the early count did not include many MAS strongholds and was thereby fully consistent with the final result.”

The popularity of Morales and MAS – primarily for strong economic growth and increased equity during their tenure – also stuck in voters’ minds.

“Although Evo was the central figure in the party, from its origins the MAS had a broad national constituency, which is both a weakness and a strength.

“A weakness because the party officials in some regions practice the typical patronage politics…[but] whereby the benefits of extraction are distributed through them to communities.” 

Last night Morales announced his intention to return to Bolivia almost a year after being forced out. But the former president played his cards to perfection, and a socialist Bolivia appears to beckon.

Daniel Hellinger is Professor of International Relations at Webster University and is currently working on the third edition of his text, Comparative Politics of Latin America: Can Democracy Last?


Featured Image: Joel Alvarez @ Wikimedia Commons

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