After a year of rightwing political persecution, corruption and instability in Bolivia, the leftwing Movimiento al socialismo (MAS) has recaptured power in a stunning electoral victory.
In Bolivia’s election on 18 October, Luis Arce of the Movement towards Socialism (Movimiento al socialismo, MAS) won with 55 per cent of the vote, trouncing his nearest rival Carlos Mesa from the rightwing Citizen Community (Comunidad Cuidadana) party on 28 per cent. Finishing in a lukewarm third place is Creemos (We believe), the party of far-right Santa Cruz business leader and 2019 coup ringleader Luis Fernando Camacho. On Wednesday, Camacho’s running mate Marco Pumari found himself pelted with eggs, tomatoes and orange peel when he arrived in the highlands to his hometown of Potosí.
The MAS’ victory represents a clear repudiation of the neoliberal and overtly racist political project launched by Bolivia’s elites in the wake of the coup last November.
There was a record voter turnout of 88.4 per cent and, barring the conservative strongholds of Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija, the MAS obtained a majority in all departments. In the Senate, 20 out of 36 senators are women and most of these are affiliated to the MAS.
The MAS’ victory can be explained, in part, by the litany of failings and petty brutalities enacted by the coup government over the past year. It has been mired in corruption scandals, including the alleged multi-million-dollar fraudulent purchase of unsuitable ventilators at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The regime has presided over a spiralling rate of covid-19 cases, with at least 8,000 dead out of a population of 11 million, the third-highest COVID-19 death rate in the world, according to Statista. The strong economic credentials of Arce, a UK-trained economist and ex-economy minister, will undoubtedly have done much to swing votes from middle-class voters away from Mesa.
A year ago, then-president Evo Morales was forced to flee the country in a police-military coup following the mobilisation of rightwing protestors in urban centres after the October 2019 elections. Since then, political repression and the demonisation of the MAS by the unelected rightwing government generated a climate of fear. Arrest warrants have been widely issued against critical journalists and MAS-supporting trade unionists and political figures.
In a country historically structured by race, class, racial and rural-urban divisions have recently resurfaced with disturbing prominence. In the aftermath of the elections last year, 35 anti-coup protesters were killed in state massacres in Senkata, outside the city of El Alto and Sacaba, in the coca-growing region of Cochabamba. Many MAS officials had their homes burnt down. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the deaths were the result of security forces using ‘unnecessary or disproportionate use of force against protesters’.
For some, this year has also brought back memories of the dark days of the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1980, Luis García Meza seized power in a violent military coup. His one year presidency was characterised by severe brutality and the assassination of socialist leaders such as Marcelo Quiroga, while the near entirety of the labour movement leadership was forced into exile.
The decisive nature of the election has given rise to new questions around the role of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose intervention in the elections last year was the catalyst for a renewed wave of protest by rightwing social forces in Bolivian cities decrying ‘fraud’. As the Centre for Economic Policy Reform (CEPR) thinktank has argued, the OAS’ statistical analysis was deeply flawed and there is no evidence that any fraud took place.
At a press conference this week in Buenos Aires where he resides in exile, Morales announced that he would take judicial action against Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the OAS. ‘Almagro must resign, his hands are stained with the blood of Bolivians,’ Morales declared.
Meanwhile the threat of fascist violence on the streets remains high. In Cochabamba, the armed ultra-right group Cochala Youth Resistance (Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, RJC) spearheaded protests while in Santa Cruz, the extreme-right Pro Santa Cruz Committee issued a statement on Wednesday urging the electoral authority to suspend the vote count, citing fraud.
Where next for the MAS?
Luis Arce will be officially sworn in as Bolivia’s president on 8 November and the coming months look set to bring immense challenges for the new government. Despite steady economic growth under the MAS, Bolivia remains Latin America’s poorest county, with poverty levels at around 17 per cent. The economy is predicted to enter a recession as a result of the pandemic and, since November last year, unemployment has rocketed from 4 per cent to around 12 per cent. Meanwhile, revenue from natural gas exports, the motor of the Bolivian economy has dropped.
Yet despite the prospect of tough times ahead, ultimately the MAS’ victory is testament to the prevailing power of Bolivia’s powerfully organised social movements and to the widespread appeal of the party’s socialist-communitarian vision. In August, campesinos, indigenous groups and the COB, the major trade union federation, brought the country to a standstill by forming blockades in protest at the postponement of elections. The restoration of democracy in the plurinational Andean state owes everything to their efforts.