Democracy returns to Bolivia

Forrest Hylton

A year ago, a far-right coup in Bolivia – backed by Brazil and the US – ousted the democratically elected government of Evo Morales, catapulting Jeanine Áñez, an unknown senator from the lowland frontier region of Beni, to the presidency. Áñez promised to hold elections within 90 days, but instead postponed them three times. On 18 October this year, Morales’s party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), won a crushing first-round victory on an 86 per cent turnout. The new president, Luis Arce, for many years Morales’s economy minister, won 55 per cent of the vote against a fractured right-wing opposition.

Áñez withdrew from the race in September, but the right was unable to unite behind a single candidate. Carlos Mesa from La Paz, standing for the centre right, finished on 29 per cent; his far-right rival, Luis Fernando Camacho from Santa Cruz, on 14 per cent. The homophobic evangelical pastor Chi Hyun Chung, who had accused Mesa of fraud, came a distant fourth on 1.5 per cent.

Arce will govern with a majority in both houses of the Plurinational Assembly. MAS held its 21 Senate seats (out of 36), and increased its share in the lower house to 73 seats (out of 130). Mesa conceded defeat as soon as the exit polls came out, and Áñez – whose government had largely decomposed by the time of elections, with one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world – congratulated the winners.

Even before the official tally was finished on 23 October, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said that the US looked forward to working with the new government. The principal international architects of the false allegations of fraud in 2019, the Organisation of American States, acknowledged that Arce’s victory was legitimate, even as they reaffirmed their claims concerning last year’s elections.

Camacho tried to summon the demons of 2019, but protests in four cities (Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Oruro and Sucre) died out almost immediately. The fascist shock troops of the Unión Juvenil Cruceña, which Camacho commanded from 2003-7, called for a regional civic strike in Santa Cruz. But the Comité Cívico de Santa Cruz, until recently a vehicle for Camacho, came out against it. Without political cover, the UJC is not a force.

A more stunning reversal and a more resounding victory for MAS – not to mention the prospects for democratic advance in South America – would be hard to imagine; no one forecast such margins. Arce’s solid performance in Morales’s government during an economic high point of Bolivian history – when they made unprecedented strides against poverty – explains part of his success at the polls. Yet it would be a mistake to attribute this victory to the popularity of Morales or of previous MAS governments.

It took a neo-fascist coup to break Morales’s chokehold over his party, a process that began when he and his vice president, Álvaro Garcia Linera, boarded a plane to Mexico on 11 November 2019, and deepened during their exile in Argentina. Arce’s victory represents not the re-embrace of the longest period of rule by one person and one party in Bolivian history, but the long overdue renovation of MAS as a political force.

New actors like Eva Copa, the 33-year-old president of the senate from El Alto, have come to the fore, along with such stalwarts as the new vice president and former foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, who is close to the Aymara peasant trade union movements of the Andean highlands.

Because the coup plotters insisted on maintaining a civilian façade to their rule – which witnessed the second bloodiest month (October 2019) since the last in long line of Cold War military dictatorships ended in 1982 – their legitimacy depended on the MAS majorities in congress, even with Morales in exile and his domestic allies persecuted. The alternative to doing business with MAS senators and deputies was to close the Plurinational Assembly altogether.

For their part, MAS politicians and supporters – to manoeuvre at all, or even to stay out of jail – had to cut their ties to Morales and the exiled members of his government. And to survive as a political force, MAS needed to reach far beyond Morales’s traditional base among the coca growers in the Cochabamba lowlands, especially since the Áñez government had warmly embraced the return of the DEA and armed confrontations with coca growers.

Once they had been chosen as candidates (and Morales, though still influential, was unable to control the selection process), Arce and Choquehuanca sought to rebuild the broad coalition that brought MAS to power in 2006 following two nationwide insurrections against neoliberal governments in 2003 and 2005: the first put Mesa in power and the second removed him.

Social movements nearly removed Áñez in August, shutting down six of Bolivia’s nine departments through road blockades. The protests were led not by MAS but by Aymara peasant trade union confederations, neighbourhood committees in El Alto, Cochabamba and Oruro, miners and peasants from Oruro, Chuquisaca and Potosí, as well as coca growers in the Yungas and Chapare – the main actors in 2003 and 2005. After August it was clear that the political costs to the Áñez regime of postponing the elections yet again, or preventing Arce and Choquehuanca from running, would be prohibitive.

MAS won the entire western crescent: Pando, La Paz, Oruro, Potosí, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca (as well as many municipalities even in the eastern lowlands of Beni and Santa Cruz). The election results demonstrate, not for the first time, that the western highlands and highland valleys, with their high concentration of rural and urban indigenous voters, ultimately determine the parameters of sovereignty and political representation in Bolivia, and no government can rule against them for long.


  • 28 October 2020 at 2:51am
    Guido the Younger says:
    A correction: the executive did not not postpone elections three times. Only the TSE (Supreme Electoral Court) has the power to do that. Two of the postponements, it is worth noting, were achieved through negotiations and agreements with the 2/3 MAS majority in the Plurinational Assembly. The entire process was more complex and messy (perhaps even more democratic?) than the author implies. Also, though Arce will rule with a majority in the Assembly, he does not have the 2/3 needed to legislate without forging pacts and accords with other forces.

  • 5 November 2020 at 7:12am
    Graucho says:
    For anyone interested in further reading.