Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Web Exclusive

Bolivia’s Regional Elections: A Setback for Evo Morales

Reading Time: 4 minutesAfter sweeping victories in December, lackluster gains in the April 4 elections may point to future troubles for the MAS party.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Artisans rally in La Paz, Bolivia. Photograph courtesy of Squawkingalah.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Evo Morales suffered a significant setback. That’s the simplest way to interpret the results from Bolivia’s regional and municipal elections on April 4. Nonetheless, he was quick to emphasize that his party had achieved significant gains. But this came on the heels of a press conference by Juan Del Granado, the outgoing mayor of La Paz, and Luis Revilla, the new mayor-elect, celebrating the triumph of their party (Movimiento sin Miedo-MSM) in a tough race in the capital city. Only four months ago, Del Granado had stood beside Morales, celebrating his ally’s re-election. Their recent, bitter split defines the new conflicts in Morales’ Bolivia.

Morales had good reason to celebrate the gains of his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party. MAS candidates placed first in five of nine governors races, and the party’s candidate in Pando looks likely to edge out his chief rival. Even though runoff contests will likely be required in the departments of La Paz and Pando, this is better than the three prefectures (autonomy provisions in the new constitution replace “prefects” with “governors”) MAS won in 2005. Likewise, MAS did better overall in municipal contests than it did in 2004, increasing its representation in key cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz.

But these advances—falling far short of government expectations, particularly so soon after sweeping victories in December—led to finger pointing. A day after the vote Morales admitted that he had expected a better showing and placed much of the blame on local party leaders. Others blamed the party hierarchy for selecting unknown candidates or, in some cases, even overruling by dedazo (force) the candidate selections of its grassroots, base organizations—a critical misstep for a party that defines itself as a “bottom-up” political movement.

The party’s losses were always predictable but still stung. Opposition mayoral candidates won in seven of the country’s 10 major cities. In Santa Cruz, Percy Fernández, easily won re-election, tripling his vote share and securing his party a majority in the municipal council. In Trinidad (capital of Beni department), Moises Shiriqui won his third re-election in a contest where MAS placed a distant third. In Sucre, Luis Barron, a key figure in the opposition movement that paralyzed the constituent assembly, was elected mayor. Such results made clear that the so-called “media luna” opposition (referring to the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando, and Beni) is securely entrenched.

A Changing Power Structure?

The real problem for Morales is in the opening of two new “fronts” challenging his presidency. The first and most important is defined by the MAS-MSM split. The MAS-MSM partnership that began with the 2005 presidential election anchored Morales’ presidency. When MSM announced it would campaign independently in the April elections, things got ugly.

Morales’ administration has been furiously indicting various figures on “corruption” charges: previous presidents and vice-presidents, former ministers, current opposition prefects and mayors, and opposition candidates (including former MAS defectors). The most embarrassing case involved Felix Patzi. A close Morales confidant (previously education minister), Patzi was the MAS candidate for governor of La Paz until he was arrested for drunk driving. When he refused to step aside, the government suddenly discovered that Patzi, too, was corrupt and filed charges against him. It was no surprise, then, that as the campaign heated up in late March, charges were also brought against Juan Del Granado and several MSM figures. One government official publicly joked that Del Granado and former dictator Luis Garcia Mesa (whom Del Granado prosecuted in the early 1980s at great personal risk) could become cellmates.

The bitter MAS-MSM split cost Morales dearly. At the national level, it threatens the government’s legislative majority: Several MAS legislators—including Ana María Romero de Campero, the Senate president—are actually MSM legislators. At the local level, MSM is also a potent threat: after winning more than 100 municipal contests, it is the country’s second-largest party.

These changing dynamics could affect Morales’ traditional, most loyal political base: the La Paz-El Alto metropolitan area. In La Paz, Revilla successfully fended off the MAS challenger and secured a majority in the municipal council. In El Alto, which voted almost unanimously for Morales in December 2009, MAS secured the mayorship but did not win a majority of municipal council seats. The two other parties to win seats, MSM and Unidad Nacional, already declared they will not cooperate with the city’s new mayor.

The second new front Morales faces is, ironically, in rural and primarily indigenous areas. Here, the data is much less clear, since vote counting in outlying areas is notoriously slow. But preliminary reports show voting for MAS decreased in key rural areas such as Achacachi, where MAS placed third. In many parts of the country, the “anti-party” discourse has extended even to MAS, which is seen as merely another political party. Instead, rural and indigenous communities field their own, micro-local political organizations and frequently see MAS candidates as interlopers. Morales and his policies remain popular in rural, indigenous communities. But this isn’t translating into loyalty to MAS as a political party.

Moreover, many of the MAS candidate choices were puzzling. While criticizing Del Granado for having played a role in the politics of the 1990s—and therefore being “reactionary” and corrupt—the party nominated Roberto Fernández (no relation to Percy Fernández), a right-wing populist involved in massive tax fraud and mismanagement of municipal resources, to the mayorship of Santa Cruz.

The fallout from April 4 suggest that MAS has failed to achieve its stated campaign goal of becoming a hegemonic party. Sure, the opposition remains fragmented and divided. But it’s increasingly clear that MAS is an uneasy patchwork alliance that to many voters looks too much like the juntucha (ad-hoc) alliances of the old party system.

The heavy-handed rhetoric that paints all Morales opponents with the same brush strokes—making no differences between a proto-fascist like Garcia Mesa and a social democrat like Del Granado—have made it difficult for MAS to secure victories where it matters most: at the local level.

Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter