Evo pulls it off, again...
The result confirms Evo’s extraordinary personal popularity, based partly on his own humble origins and his identification with the country’s strong social movements, and partly on his government’s achievements in office.
His background as the son of dirt-poor peasant Altiplano farmers, as migrant sugar harvester in Argentina and then as coca farmer from the jungle Chapare region means that Morales’ life history is typical of many of his compatriots. He is perceived as a ‘man of the people’ in a country where, until his first election victory in 2005, politics was the exclusive domain of a small élite. His first victory in 2005 owed much to his leadership in opposition to neoliberal policies at a time when the traditional party system entered a period of crisis.
As president, Evo swiftly moved to extend state ownership over the key hydrocarbons industry, Bolivia’s main source of foreign exchange. He ordered the election of an Assembly to re-write the constitution to extend indigenous rights. He initiated social programmes to use gas income to benefit the poor. Since then, the Bolivian economy has prospered; growth this year will be among the highest in Latin America. Poverty levels have fallen sharply, as have measures of inequality.
The election result also confirms the weakness of opposition parties and movements. Led by Samuel Doria Medina, a successful business entrepreneur, the main opposition force garnered around 25 per cent of the vote. However, the right-wing Unidad Demócrata (UD) coalition only managed to win in one of the country’s nine departments, the Beni, and there by a narrow margin.
The opposition failed to win in Santa Cruz, usually considered the bastion of opposition to Morales and the MAS. It was here that Rubén Costas, the present governor and UD co-founder, tried to organize open secession in 2008 against the MAS administration in La Paz. The election result therefore quashes the widespread notion that the country is split into two ‘half moons’, one (the highlands) supporting the MAS and another (the lowlands) the opposition.
Morales, elected in 2005 with 54 per cent of the vote and re-elected in 2009 with 64 per cent, starts his third administration in a position of strength. Preliminary results suggest that the MAS will have a commanding majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, possibly even the two-thirds majority it would need (if it wanted to) to change the constitution. Economic growth seems set fair: the IMF calculates that GDP will expand by 5.5 per cent this year and a further 5.0 per cent next year. Inflation remains under control. Foreign reserves are sufficient to prevent balance of payments problems, and Bolivia’s external indebtedness is lower than in 2005. Credit rating agencies regard the country as a good bet.
However, Evo will need to exercise his authority to maintain his primacy. Social movements, including labour unions, will seek to demand what they consider their fair share in the country’s growth. The business community, based on Santa Cruz, will also push for a larger share of the cake. Bolivia remains perilously dependent for its wellbeing on a single commodity: natural gas. And sooner or later, the question of succession is bound to emerge: as Hugo Chávez showed in Venezuela, even the most popular leaders do not go on for ever.
John Crabtree is a research associate at the Latin American Centre, Oxford, and co-author of the recently published Bolivia: Processes of Change (Zed, 2013)