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Triumph in Bolivia, hope returns in the region

Almost a year after the coup that ended with the exile of President Evo Morales and the political persecution of dozens of supporters of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), the Bolivian people came out in force to cast their vote, giving the victory to former Minister of Economy Luis Arce in the elections on 18 October.


Luis Arce Catacora. Photo: Casa De America Flickr. License: Creative Commons

Pierre Lebret and Mauricio Jaramillo*


Fifteen years ago, Bolivia embarked on the path of refounding its politics through a doubly unprecedented circumstance, involving both the first indigenous person to assume the presidency and the first time since 1967 that a candidate could prevail in the elections in the first round.

In December 2005, Evo Morales managed to win 53% of the votes, and his party, the Movement for Socialism, won a legislative majority.

This foreshadowed a complete change that included drafting a new constitution, given that Bolivia was embroiled in a serious crisis of governance.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997, 2002-2003) and Carlos Mesa (2003-2005) left power before finishing their terms in the midst of a social upheaval, resulting from mismanagement of resources in a country with the largest gas reserves in the Americas but in which, at the time, 38% of the population lived in extreme poverty.

In the midst of the euphoria over the shift to the left, which seemed to be a dominant movement in the region, with similar phenomena seen in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay and a pioneering speech by Hugo Chávez who had burst onto the scene in 1999, Bolivia embarked on the process of refounding its political and economic system.

With marked polarisation and episodes of violence, the process of writing the new constitution lasted for three years and would only come into force from 2009.

Since then, Bolivia’s so-called economic miracle occurred, a scheme that proved its long-term viability.

Under Morales, levels of extreme poverty dropped by more than 30% from 38% to 15%, and the concentration of income decreased from 54.5 in 2005 to 44.0 in 2019, measured according to the Gini coefficient. The latter represents an emblematic achievement in the most unequal area of ​​the world in terms of average.

In 2016, supported by an unprecedented wave of popularity since the return of democracy in 1981, Evo Morales proposed constitutional reform that would allow him a second re-election.

Despite the majority “No” that was the outcome of the popular consultation, Morales appealed to the courts, who surprisingly granted him the right to stand for a third term and a second re-election in the October 2019 elections.

Against the background of a fragmented environment, Morales was declared winner over Carlos Mesa, who did not accept the result. Like several sectors, protests to denounce electoral manipulation were called for.

The Organization of American States, which was involved in an on-site observation mission, published a report that implied possible fraud in favour of Morales’ re-election and, therefore, suggested a repeat election. The government accepted, but the military had already intimidated and put pressure on Morales to relinquish power.

The OAS report was riddled with errors and inconsistencies, as evidenced by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, which published independent studies revealing serious inaccuracies in the report.

The fall of Morales gave way to the government of Jeanine Áñez, which has been denounced internationally for persecution against members, militants and sympathisers of the MAS.

Luis Arce’s victory in the first round with more than 52% of the votes is synonymous with hope for the poorest sectors of the country. Moreover, it gives it legitimacy to resume the path of reform and the fight against poverty and inequality, as well as a model focused on local industrial development.

The Bolivian people have decided.

After the election of Alberto Fernández in Argentina last year, and now with the victory of the MAS in Bolivia, the lean to the right that began a few years ago seems to have weakened significantly. It remains to be known what will happen in the elections in Chile and Ecuador, which are determining factors for the political map of the region. After years of human rights violations and austerity policies, it seems that democracy and social justice will prevail. (PL)

*Lebret: French political scientist, Latin Americanist and expert in international cooperation; Jaramillo, doctor in Political Science and professor at the Universidad del Rosario, Colombia.

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