The Bolivian left’s election win is a positive sign, but it inherits a dire situation


Kevin Young

The landslide vote for Luis Arce is reason for optimism, but Bolivia still requires major resources to contain Covid-19

On 18 October, the progressive candidate, Luis Arce, decisively won Bolivia’s presidential election, beating his nearest rival by about 20 points according to exit polls. His party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Mas), also apparently retained its majorities in both houses of congress.

It’s a remarkable turn of events. In November 2019 the Mas president, Evo Morales, was overthrown in a police-military coup that installed the rightwing evangelical Jeanine Áñez as president.

Security forces massacred dozens of unarmed Mas supporters. Regime opponents faced charges of “terrorism” and “sedition”. Racism against the indigenous majority became overt on the streets; Áñez’s caretaker cabinet originally included not one indigenous minister.

The ostensibly transitional government also made major changes to policy. It cosied up to the Trump administration, deported 700 Cuban doctors who were providing public healthcare, and signalled its intention to pursue the old neoliberal policies of privatisation and austerity. Many doubted that the regime would ever allow a democratic election.

Yet its power was limited. The working-class Bolivians who comprise the Mas base could still shut down the country with road blockades and strikes. The threat of mass disruption, combined with parliamentary pressure by Mas legislators and global scrutiny, ensured there would be new elections and Mas would be allowed to compete in them.

Arce’s landslide margin of victory left no room to contest the results. Just after midnight on 19 October, Áñez recognised Arce’s victory. Carlos Mesa, the runner-up, did so the next morning.

Even the Organization of American States (OAS), followed suit. The OAS had helped precipitate last year’s coup with claims, based on suspect data analysis, that the Morales administration committed fraud in the October 2019 election.
Why did the right lose so badly?

The fact that the anti-Mas vote was split between two major candidates, the centre-right Mesa and the ultra-conservative Luis Fernando Camacho, was not as significant as it might appear. The right had expected that the vote would be close enough to force a second round, in which its voters would presumably consolidate to elect Mesa over Arce. The problem was that Arce won an absolute majority, easily surpassing the combined votes of Mesa and Camacho.

The deeper reason for the Mas victory lies in the popularity of its policies. It was those policies and their contrast with the current regime’s – rather than some irrational allegiance to Evo Morales or Mas, as the right often implies – that won the election for Arce.

Most notably, the quasi-nationalisation of the natural gas industry during Morales’s first year in office dramatically increased state revenues. The resulting public investments and safety-net policies reduced poverty from 60% to 35%. Though the “socialist” Mas never attempted to replace capitalism with socialism, its progressive fiscal policies improved millions of lives.

It’s not that everyone who voted for Arce loves Mas, or everything about it. Many criticised Morales’s mixed environmental record, his prioritisation of extractive industry and his sometimes heavy-handed response to opponents.

But the right offered little to progressive voters disillusioned with Mas. The anti-indigenous, theocratic and neoliberal ideology of Áñez and Camacho enjoys major support only among light-skinned residents in eastern Bolivia. Mesa’s more technocratic politics appeal to much of the middle class, but not many workers and peasants. And rather than condemning the coup regime’s repression or offering progressive proposals that might help build a working-class base, Mesa’s campaign strategy appeared to focus on siphoning votes from the far-right.

The non-Mas candidates likely also suffered from their identification with the United States. The Trump administration openly rejoiced at the 2019 coup. The OAS, which is funded mostly by Washington, drew increased criticism in Bolivia as evidence mounted of its contribution to the 2019 coup.

The Áñez regime’s almost Trump-like disdain for Covid victims didn’t help the rightwing candidates either. Bolivia has the world’s third-highest per-capita death rate from the pandemic. As patients died, regime officials stole from the healthcare system. The health minister, Marcelo Navajas, was arrested as part of an investigation into alleged corruption involving ventilator purchases, accusations his lawyers deny.

The regime imposed a lockdown in March but did little to assist the millions of workers – more than 60% of Bolivia’s total – who depend on informal jobs. As a result, many defied the lockdown in order to survive, which contributed to the virus’s spread.

President Arce will inherit this dire situation. His solid prior performance as Morales’s economic minister is reason for optimism. But Bolivia remains a poor country, and major resources and coordination will be needed to contain the virus.
Many other unknowns remain. Will Áñez, interior minister Arturo Murillo and other officials face prosecution for the state violence that occurred under their administration, or will they get safe haven in the US like others from Bolivia’s recent past? Will the reactionary forces that rallied behind Camacho accept the Arce administration’s legitimacy, or will they again turn to violence?

On top of these challenges, Mas will need to address the contradictions in its own prior policies. For instance, despite its progressive credentials, it has not worked to wean the economy off its historic dependence on minerals, fossil fuels and agricultural monocultures, with all their negative environmental impacts. The party also needs to cultivate new leadership and input from the grassroots, which was a major weakness under Morales.

The 18 October elections were a big win for democracy. But the next few years will not be easy.

• Kevin Young teaches history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is the author of Blood of the Earth: Resource Nationalism, Revolution, and Empire in Bolivia

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