Yes, Big Evo is up for a third term in office, constitutional small-print be damned! In fact, though Bolivia’s constitution says you can only be president for two consecutive terms, the Supreme Court dubbed current President Morales’ third shot at the big time all legal and above board, thanks to the constitutional changes implemented in 2006 which (apparently) makes his first term not count. He’ll largely be facing down, among others, the DUC (Unity Democrat Coalition), a collection of opponents up in arms over the government’s programs of nationalizations, and fiery anti-US rhetoric that have been features of political discourse since Morales’ party, the Movement for Socalism (MAS), took the stage back in 2005.
Whether one agrees with the ever so slightly dubious court ruling or, like the milieu of divided opposition parties, one does not, seems almost insignificant at this stage. After almost a decade in power, there is a sense that Morales and the MAS have become part of the fabric of Bolivia itself, one equating the other and vice versa. This is not to project a hegemonic, one party state utopia on the poverty-stricken Andean nation, of course. More, it’s that Morales and his party seem unstoppable at the ballot-box, having stormed to two successive victories by healthy margins while enjoying more support than any other political movement by a country mile. A poll conducted by IPSOS in June gave Morales an approval rating of 73%, up 13 points from April and a figure to make virtually any G20 leader you might care to mention go weak at the knees with envy.
His image and name are everywhere, and I don‘t mean in the megalomaniac, cult-of-personality, photo-opportunity sense (though, admittedly, this is hard to avoid thinking of when his face stares out at you from the 23rd billboard on the road from the Peruvian border into La Paz). Pro-Evo, pro-MAS graffiti is awash here in the highlands, splashed urgently on walls and houses, urging people to vote. The very idea of graffiti in favor of the current government seems almost alien to me, hailing as I do from the pessimistic shores of a sliding “Great” Britain, where apathy holds sway over such political fire (unless you‘re Scottish).
So Morales and his party are popular, far more so than those who‘ll be facing them down in October. Which is…who exactly? The Unity Democrat Coalition is, as you may have guessed, a coalition of the National Unity Party and the Democrats, led by National Unity leader Samuel Doria Medina. They are looking to take on the mighty MAS by appealing to the political center. Naturally, though, when a popular, now proudly socialist party is at the national helm, there is usually a challenge from the right. And in Medina they surely have the, ahem, right man for the job.
Doria Media is in many ways Evo’s opposite: the ying to his yang, snake to his mongoose, Ming the Merciless to his Flash Gordon. Indeed, next to Morales, the former trade union leader, he’s like a politician from another world altogether. Very much in the western, professional-politician mold, Medina was formerly educated in Bolivia and then the United States. He is a business graduate and economist by trade, who at one stage in his meteoric career led that organization so controversial in Bolivia: The World Bank.
Further similarities to his First-World counterparts that set him apart from Morales are to be found in his links to big business: he‘s a major industrialist who owns two fast food chains and is the biggest shareholder in (arguably) the country‘s biggest corporation SOBOCE, which makes cement. He’ll surely champion business and the private sector in his campaign, in contrast with Morales, who has consistently favored public services and a democratization of the economy through nationalizing key industries, like Bolivia‘s vast mineral and gas reserves. The two are, in fact, long standing rivals. Also on Medina’s lengthy CV is his previous candidacy for the presidency, having tried and failed twice to beat Morales at polls. He just wants the job so much that he’s willing to put himself through the slog of another grueling election campaign against the old, apparently indestructible foe.
It is now obvious that Medina chose the wrong years – 2005 and 2009 – to face down a candidate who probably has a better claim than any of this nation’s previous leaders to being a true man of the people. Morales is indigenous Aymara, the first indigenous president in South American history. Unlike Bolivia’s neighbors, the significant majority of the population is also indigenous, which holds sway politically. In 2005, he and the MAS were helped onto victory by this vast, nuanced majority, and by communities in desperate economic circumstances that responded to the party‘s universal, galvanizing message: Change. In 2009 the MAS was re-elected by a landslide.
Much of Bolivian society embraced Morales‘ promises to empower the poorest and disenfranchised, and on many accounts during almost a decade in power, many of his promises were realized. He introduced expansive legislation that helped combat the racism and exclusion the indigenous majority had historically faced: Civil servants were required to learn an indigenous language (which greatly helped with outreach), power was distributed through the nuanced regions of the country (we must now call Bolivia The Plurinational State of…by the way), and millions of hectares of land redistributed, largely from individuals to disadvantaged communities.
Add to that the official eradication of illiteracy under the MAS (it had stood at 16% in 2005), the balancing of higher education to a rate of indigenous entrance of over 50% and the slashing of extreme and relative poverty by between five and ten percent each, and one begins to realize why Big Evo and Co. are still courting such popularity that has come through years of delivering social development whilst in power. And of course, showing up to the UN and international conferences in llama jumpers doesn’t hurt either.
Why don‘t other Bolivian politicians follow suit? In terms of cool politicians, Evo is almost untouchable (though the Jose Mujica of Uruguay, an ex-freedom fighter who donates 90% of his wages to charity and successfully legalized marijuana last year, is a worthy contender).
Both these leaders are of branches off the same tree, presidents of the so-called Pink-Tide of center-left political dominance over the continent which, although threatened in some states like Venezuela these days, still seems to be the movement of destiny for early 21st-Century Latin America. For even a slight chance of ousting Morales, Medina and the DUC know they must either play to their own strengths or, as seems increasingly prevalent in elections worldwide these days, their opponents’ weaknesses. Their campaign thus far seems to be an attempt to balance both, though arguably favoring the latter.
Take their main campaign slogan and poster, for example. The tagline roughly translates as “A Bolivia for Everyone,” written beneath banners with Medina smiling out of them and a supposed cross-section of Bolivian society, from indigenous mothers to wealthier businessmen, surrounding him. This is, of course, an attempt to reach out to the indigenous majority that has not traditionally warmed to conservative politics. If they do so, they’ll pinch some votes that have been lacking for Medina in his previous half-baked assaults on the Presidency.
But the MAS is not unanimously supported. By favoring policies aimed spefically at the poorer classes, MAS have made regular opponents of the small but rising bourgeoisie in Bolivia that claims it is marginalized as a direct result of this “favoritism.” It’s no coincidence that Medina is focusing his campaign around the lands away from the North and West, for example, the region of Santa Cruz.
Richer than its highland counterparts (largely thanks to oil), Santa Cruz de la Sierra is a city where the country’s emerging middle class thrives; white headphones and sharp suits of disposable income abound here, in direct contrast with the rest of the country. As Morales began his term in 2005, Santa Cruz as a region became more and more opposed to the perceived junta of center-left politics and the sympathetic majority that was nigh-on unbeatable at the polls.
Medina, the former World Bank leader and economist whiz kid is still hoping his know-how in this super-important electoral battleground will win over some voters, particularly if he pushes the “nationalizing private enterprises will damage Bolivia´s rep for international business” line, which has been used against Evo before.
The problem for him is that MAS has done a pretty good job managing the economy, too, whichever way you look at it. The nationalizations have generated revenue for the government like never before, much of it spent on helping out the poorest as outlined above, but a huge chunk also kept aside in savings. They have grown the economy consistently, even winning official praise from those punitive, structural re-adjusters at the IMF as such. Growth stands to hit 6.7% this year, its highest for a decade (read it and weep, Western economies). The one ray of sunshine for Medina and the DUC is that in terms of intended votes, Morales’ support has dropped a bit since the last election, according to La Razon and global polling experts IPSOS (63% to 59%).
The three other campaigns hoping to rock the boat at the election, though with only limited support next to the two frontrunners we have analyzed, will be happy to tap into this sentiment if they can. Two of these other opponents hail from similar places occupied by the MAS on the political spectrum: Juan del Grando and the MSM (Movement Without Fear) are center-left and former allies of Morales, and indigenous leader Fernando Vargas champions indigenous rights and Pachamama (Mother Earth) environmentalism, fronting the Green Party.
The final player is Jorge Tuto Quiroga Ramírez, a former president who will be hoping that the mass of voters he needs to attract will remember his name or face during his brief and lackluster 2001-2002 term. Hailing from the center-right PDC (Christian Democratic Party), Quiroga Ramírez has inflamed the DUC and damaged its campaign, as the PDC will surely split the vote with the DUC.
With still around a month and a half to go before the first votes are cast, there is still time for the landscape to shift dramatically. After all, a day is a long time in politics. However, the latest polls attest to Team Evo’s continuing popularity and continuing dominance, as he possesses 50-60% of voting intention (depending on the poll), next to Medina’s 17%, while Grando and Quiroga hover around 4% each. This popularity was hard-won during MAS‘s rise to election back in 2005, and has been maintained for almost a decade since, a staggering achievement in a nation with such a history of political turmoil.
Life in Bolivia is still very hard for most, and poverty is still rampant. But Morales’ positive influence on the country is tangible and evident to many. If re-elected, the MAS has promised to extend the project they started 9 years ago. This will be just the incentive their legions of supporters need to carry them onwards.