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On Sunday, Bolivian Democracy Took a Big Step Toward Stability

By Miguel Centellas

Bolivia's 2017 Elections / Source: OAS Mission

On Sunday, Bolivians went to the polls a year after a botched presidential election. That election pitted longtime president Evo Morales and his MAS party against a fragmented field of opposition candidates led by former president Carlos Mesa. Morales’s candidacy violated a constitutional provision on term limits. As the ballots count was being updated by a rapid count system (publicly available online), it was clear that Morales did not win enough votes to avoid a runoff. Suddenly, the count stopped for several hours. When it resumed, Morales had secured enough votes. Public response was swift: widespread protests against perceived voter fraud escalated over several days. On November 10, 2019, Morales left the country.

When Morales resigned, he triggered a constitutional crisis. With the president and vice president gone, the presidency fell to the president of the senate. But with all the MAS leadership also resigning their positions, the line of succession left Jeanine Añez, ranking opposition senator, as interim president. The conservative politician pledged to restore order and organize new elections as soon as possible. Morales critics hoped for harsh retribution against MAS while his supporters denounced what they called an “illegitimate” authoritarian government. Despite missteps, Añez went forward with the 2020 election and allowed MAS to participate. After internal disputes, MAS nominated Luis Arce, a former economic minister, who quickly rose in the polls and was consistently the frontrunner.

In the midst of extreme polarization and what many people worried was a slide toward authoritarianism, Bolivia’s democracy seems to have pulled back from the brink. How did this happen, and what does this mean for Bolivian democracy?

Responsible elites

The answer lies largely with responsible political elites, on both the right and the left. Añez was heavily criticized and often labeled “authoritarian.” Yes, she is a staunch opponent of MAS and her decision to run for the presidency sparked accusations that she was abusing her office to hold on to power. Resigning her candidacy in September (after failing to gain traction) changed the dynamics. Arce, the MAS candidate campaigned responsibly, emphasizing the successes in social policy during the Morales presidency but emphasizing that he would govern as his own man. Arce’s main challenger was Mesa, who hoped to rally the anti-MAS vote. The revanchist right included figures like Luis Camacho, a key public figure in the 2019 anti-Morales protests.

That MAS agreed to participate in the process is significant. Clearly, any election that excluded MAS would be illegitimate. Ignoring calls from many on the right to legally prevent MAS from participating, Añez took no such step and the electoral campaign advanced normally.

Another important figure is Carlos Mesa, the “face” of the anti-MAS opposition. Mesa led a broad centrist coalition (Civic Community). It is easy to impose our own ideological categories from a distance, but Bolivia is complex. MAS is not really a “socialist” party and Mesa is better described as a “liberal progressive.” Moreover, Mesa had been appointed by Morales as Bolivia’s ambassador to The Hague to argue the case for Bolivia’s longstanding territorial dispute with Chile.

Mesa’s concession speech was crucial. Because much of the anti-MAS opposition had rallied around him, his pronouncement helped legitimize the results. In short order, Añez followed suit and publicly congratulated Arce on his victory. Not long after, Camacho and others also publicly accepted the results, even as they waited for official tallies to learn the composition of the legislature.

The MAS after Evo Morales

For years, conventional wisdom held that Evo Morales was indispensable for MAS. Sunday’s election makes clear this is not true. As of this writing, it looks like Arce won about 54% of the vote, surpassing Morales’s tally in the controversial 2019, when (by most credible accounts) Morales avoided a runoff against Mesa due to electoral fraud. The 2020 results suggests that a majority of Bolivians still support the MAS project (a vague combination of social democratic policies, identity politics, and economic nationalism) and that this project is more popular than Evo Morales, individually.

It seems that the 2020 election forced a leadership transition within MAS itself. Arce has given indications that he plans to govern by himself. If so, MAS may emerge as an institutionalized party that can outlast any individual party boss. The election results may also convince MAS that (like in 2005), it can win an election even when it does not hold power and cannot manipulate the outcome.

Trusting in the electoral process

That the MAS candidate won the presidency—and did so handily—contradicts the narrative of a manipulative, authoritarian cabal intent on preventing MAS from returning to power. The professionalism of Bolivia’s electoral court should not be ignored. In an incredibly difficult political context (and a pandemic), they oversaw a clean and transparent election. Some questioned its decision (days prior to voting) to suspend the “rapid count” system and rely instead on the official tally, although it did allow exit polls.

The willingness of Mesa, Arce, and others to quickly accept the results of exit polls that showed Arce as the winner—even when early vote counts had Mesa ahead—was remarkable and unprecedented. As vote counting advanced, it became clear that incoming results confirmed the exit polls. The willingness of key political actors to accept results of scientific polls is a milestone. With so much on the line, it would have been easy for Añez, Mesa, and others to insist on waiting for official results, which would have heightened tensions. Instead, they chose to acknowledge defeat.

A fragmented opposition

One key problem still remains for Bolivia’s democracy—the same one that has plagued it since 2005. In each subsequent election, a host of individual opposition figures would build ad hoc coalitions around themselves in quixotic quests to topple Morales. Fractured by regionalism, ideology, and other issues, they let their vanity supersede political common sense. In fourteen years, the opposition failed to build a real, institutionalized party structure. The only person who came close was Samuel Doria Medina, a former center-left political figure and business magnate. But his Unidad Nacional (UN) party eventually became just another part of the ad hoc alliance-building frenzy.

The main challenge confronting Bolivia’s democracy is the construction of a viable, disciplined, and cohesive opposition party. The 2020 election leaves MAS as the only real political party in Bolivia today. A strong democracy requires strong political parties (plural). The task for the opposition is the same that it has been since 2006, to build long-lasting political institutions.

Much also depends on how the anti-MAS “grassroots” responds. In 2019, they were justified in going to the streets to denounce and resist electoral fraud by an incumbent president illegally seeking a fourth election. A year later, the results of a clean election contested under the supervision of an anti-MAS incumbent has given MAS an electoral victory. Adam Przeworski once famously quipped that democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections” (meaning, they accept defeat and look to the next election). Well, democracy is also a system in which citizens accept that their preferred candidate lost.

Miguel Centellas is Croft Instructional Associate Professor of Sociology and International Studies at the University of Mississippi.

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©2019 by Mischiefs of Faction.