Bolivia: Voters reaffirm ‘process of change’, but warn Morales' party

Evo Morales votes on March 29. Photo: Agencia Boliviana de Información.

Up to 90% of the electorate voted in Bolivia’s “local” elections on March 29 for governors, mayors and departmental assembly and municipal council members throughout the country.

The governing Movement for Socialism (MAS) of left-wing President Evo Morales once again emerged as the only party with national representation. It is by far the major political force in Bolivia, and far ahead of the opposition parties, none of which has a significant presence in all nine departments.

However, in some key contests the voters rebuffed the MAS candidates — notably in the race for governor in La Paz department and for mayor in the city of El Alto, the centre of the 2003-2005 upsurges and long considered a MAS bastion.

Mixed results

With 66% of the popular vote in the municipal elections, the MAS elected mayors in 225 of Bolivia’s 339 towns and cities, about the same result as in 2010.

However, consistent with a pattern in recent years, opposition parties won in eight of the 10 largest cities while the MAS gained only two, Sucre and Potosi.

In the departmental legislative assemblies, the MAS deputies now hold a clear majority of seats in six departments, and a plurality in two others. In the eastern department of Santa Cruz, long a stronghold of the right-wing opposition, the party is only two seats from a plurality.

Even in La Paz department, the newly elected opposition governor will have to contend with a two-thirds MAS majority in the legislature. The MAS did well in the municipal council elections, too.

The MAS elected governors in four of the country’s nine departments and is leading in two other departments, with runoff elections scheduled for May 3.

Opposition parties elected governors in three departments including Santa Cruz and Tarija, traditionally associated with the “Media Luna” (half moon) departments that took part in the unsuccessful 2008 revolt of the powerful landholder elite in the eastern lowlands.

However, there were big upsets for the MAS in the department of La Paz. Felix Patzi, an Aymara intellectual and minister of education in Morales’ first government, was elected governor with a 20 percentage points advance over the MAS candidate, Felipa Huanca, a leader of an indigenous and campesina (peasant) women’s group that is one of Bolivia’s major social movements.

Patzi ran on the slate of Sovereignty and Liberty (SOL.BO), a reconstruction of the Movement Without Fear, which lost its party certification in last year's elections when it won less than 3% of the national vote.

SOL.BO also retained the mayoralty and a council majority in the city of La Paz, the country’s administrative capital.

Particularly galling for MAS was its defeat in the El Alto mayoralty by an Aymara woman, Soledad Chapeton of Unidad National (UN). The right-wing UN is Bolivia’s largest opposition party. Its leader Samuel Doria Medina won 25% of the vote in last year’s presidential election.

Chapeton’s campaign emphasised her personal qualities rather than her party, but her election raises some questions as to why the UN was able to capitalise on anti-MAS sentiment.

Local issues

The MAS leadership attributed its electoral setbacks to local factors, including inadequate procedures for selecting candidates.

Candidates are normally suggested by the party members and social movements aligned with the MAS, but office-holder inertia and in some cases a misgauging of political moods can adversely affect the choice.

In El Alto, for example, the MAS was widely thought to have ignored community criticism of incompetent administration and even corruption on the part of the MAS mayor.

Many analysts have also pointed to a major difference with the 2010 local elections. In 2010, the euphoria that accompanied the adoption of a new plurinational constitution and the defeat of the right-wing landholders’ rebellion gave MAS candidates, many running for the first time, a big advantage.

Five years later, however, the voters were more inclined to examine incumbents’ records critically in light of their experience.

This was evident in the way that voters ignored MAS leaders' appeals to follow the party slate. In many instances, they divided their votes among different party slates depending on the candidates and their respective offices.

In local elections, as well, local issues can be decisive.

In last year's October national election, voters showed their overall satisfaction with the country’s direction under the MAS and its proposed social and economic goals and reforms. But in the local elections, those goals were not in question and there was remarkably little public debate over conflicting party programs.

The MAS candidates all stood on the party’s national program. The MAS seemed to assume that this was enough to capitalise on the 61% support the party’s national leadership won last October.

Incomplete autonomy processes

But also undermining programmatic debate was difficulty in discerning the full measure of local government powers in many cases. This is due to the complicated process of defining those powers under the new constitution, which remains incomplete.

Bolivia is not a federal state with a clear division of powers among the various levels of government. However, the constitution sets out general criteria for defining the “autonomous” jurisdictions of departments, regions, municipalities and the few indigenous communities that have opted for legal status as “autonomies.”

So far only one department, Pando (the smallest), has completed the complex process of achieving autonomy. This involves popular consultation and drafting a local constitution, its approval by the national constitutional authority, followed by approval in a popular referendum and, finally, proclamation by the national government.

Five departments are scheduled to hold referendums to ratify autonomy in June. But few of the 339 municipalities have yet gained full autonomous status.

In this context, the local election results may have offered a measure of public sentiment about the performance and perspectives of local governments. That was how Morales interpreted them. The president, in his few post-election remarks about the results, conceded that some of the MAS setbacks may been merited.

Threats against opposition

But Morales himself may have been a factor. On more than one occasion during the election campaign, he arrogantly threatened to refuse to work with local governments held by opposition parties and even to deny them national government funding for major projects.

These statements provoked criticism in the media and may have resulted in an anti-MAS punishment vote in some places. But they have their roots in the country’s current political culture.

In Bolivia, many local construction projects — ranging from highways, irrigation facilities, football stadiums and arenas to hospitals and health centres, schools and some productive investments — are funded under a national government program titled “Bolivia Changes, Evo Accomplishes”. They are largely financed by Venezuela under a Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) agreement.

Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera spend much of their time inaugurating such public works. Non-MAS elected officials naturally resent this approach, which presents the MAS as being virtually interchangeable with the state.

In the wake of the local elections, some social movement leaders long associated with the MAS were critical of Morales’ threats. They urged the party to work with local governments on progressive projects.

Another factor in MAS losses may have been a scandal that erupted during the campaign over alleged abuses in the Indigenous Fund. The fund was created in December 2005, just before Morales was first elected, to implement international and national agreements on indigenous rights and help finance infrastructure projects in indigenous towns and farming communities.

It is administered by eight indigenous social movements that tend to support the MAS politically. The fund holds about US$270 million, much of this derived from hydrocarbon revenues and taxes.

A national prosecution lawyer has charged that about $10 million of the fund intended for more than 150 as-yet unrealised development projects had been diverted to private bank accounts held by at least eight social movement leaders.

One of those accused by an opposition politician was Huanca, the MAS candidate for governor in La Paz. Subsequent media reports indicated that the fund’s leadership, which is supposed to meet every two months, had not met since March 2012.

The national transparency minister has now announced that a full report on the allegations will be issued by mid-April, promising any persons found guilty will be prosecuted.

Challenges

The local election results confirm the MAS’s overall leadership in Bolivia. But they are in some respects a “shot across the bows” to the party’s leaders, and a reminder that there is still much to be done to consolidate and deepen the “process of change”.

With the drop in global commodity prices Bolivia, as a small country still very dependent on resource export revenues, is encountering new challenges.

Finance minister Luís Arce recently downgraded GDP growth projections for 2015 to 5% — albeit still one of the highest in South America. But any further drop could jeopardise some of the government's wealth redistribution programs.

The MAS government program ratified in the October election sets a focus in the next period on industrialisation and expanding the domestic market to bolster food and industrial self-sufficiency, as well as establishing more permanent health and education programs, deepening land reform and strengthening the “worker-indigenous-popular” bloc that is the mainstay of the MAS.

This involves big social and political transformations that can deepen democracy and incorporate participatory and communitarian practices. It could also help overcome colonial and patriarchal ways of thinking and doing.

[Abridged from .]

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