Bolivia's unplanned elections

Jim Shultz


On December 18th the people of Bolivia will go to the polls.  It is an election that no one planned and that few asked for and in which the nation will elect its sixth president in as many years.  To the casual observer abroad, Bolivia looks like a nation in a state of democratic meltdown.  Some analysts have warned that Bolivia is on its way to becoming the Afghanistan of Latin America.


On the ground, however, what is going on now in Bolivia is the latest act in a long struggle for social justice by people who rank as the poorest in all of South America.  At the centre is the demand by Bolivia's indigenous majority for a fair share of political and economic power, in a country where they have had little of either.  At the forefront as well is the widespread popular rejection of a draconian economic model largely imposed on the country by powers from abroad.




Landlocked and poor, for two decades Bolivia has been the unwilling test lab for a set of economic policies known as the "Washington Consensus".  Topping the list has been the privatization of the nation's natural resources into the hands of foreign corporations, along with economic belt-tightening that falls heavily on the nation's poor.  The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have made these policies a key condition of giving Bolivia crucial international aid.


Five years ago Bolivians started taking to the streets to battle those policies from abroad and they have won one major victory after another.


In 2000, the citizens of Bolivia's third largest city, Cochabamba, stood down government troops and a declaration of martial law to win back control of their public water system.  Under pressure from the World Bank, the water had been privatized into the hands of the US corporate giant, Bechtel.


In February 2003 in La Paz, mass protests led by a unit of the national police forced the government to drop plans for a tax increase on the poor, a program initiated under IMF pressure.  Thirty-four people lost their lives.  That October, protests against a proposed gas export deal to California were repressed under fire, by troops sent out by then-President, Gonzalo Snchez de Lozada, a close US ally.  After more than fifty deaths in the streets, broad public opposition sent Mr. Sanchez de Lozada into US exile, where he still remains.


In 2005, these protests have continued.  In January the people of El Alto followed in Cochabamba's footsteps and forced out a private water company owned jointly by the French water conglomerate Suez and an arm of the World Bank.


Last May and June, Bolivia erupted in national protest once again over the gas issue.  Masses of people took to the streets to demand that Bolivia take back control of its vast gas and oil reserves (the second largest on the continent, after Venezuela).  Those reserves were privatized in the 1990s, and put into the hands of some of the largest oil corporations in the world, under windfall terms for the companies. 


The June protests spun the country to the political brink.  President Carlos Mesa (Snchez de Lozada's vice-president and reluctant successor) offered his resignation, triggering a succession to the Supreme Court President and the unplanned elections this month, two years ahead of the Constitutional schedule. 




The two leading rivals in this month's presidential elections could not be more different, in both their personal histories and in their visions for the nation's future.


Running first in the polls is Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and leader of the nation's Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party.  Morales first rose to political prominence here as leader of the nation's coca grower unions.  Known popularly as just Evo, he has pledged to cancel and renegotiate the country's contracts with foreign oil companies and to immediately convene a Constituent Assembly to rewrite Bolivia's constitution, a key demand of the country's indigenous groups.  Morales is also a long time thorn in the side of the US Government, having led opposition to the US war on drugs in Bolivia.  For months US officials have been claiming that Morales and his movement are really stand-ins for two other US antagonists, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro.  The US has declined to offer any evidence to back up the claim. 


The other leading candidate is Jorge Tuto Quiroga.  Quiroga served as president previously for a year (2001-2002) when he served out the last twelve months of his dying predecessor's term, Hugo Banzer, a former dictator.  Quiroga is a former IBM executive, educated in Texas and married to Texas blonde named Ginger.  His speeches are laced with the language of foreign investment and stable economic environments.  Hes a man of business.  He also presided over more than a dozen government killings in his brief tenure in office.  Hes a man of business that also feels comfortable with sending out troops as a way to combat protest, a real concern here.




From the outside it would appear that Bolivia's elections are a dramatic fork in the road, a choice between to very different paths forward.  This applies especially to the foreign view of Morales.  Outside of Bolivia he has been lifted up as an icon, good and bad.  He is alternatively either a Latin American hero or a new authoritarian Fidel in the making.  In a recent profile, The New York Times dubbed his ascendancy the second coming of Che Guevara.  More than one hundred foreign journalists have asked permission to follow him around in the campaign's closing days.


Within Bolivia, however, most people you speak with see the elections as just one more round of advertising and politicking that will translate into very little change either way.


"The elections aren't something that we asked for, ever," notes Oscar Olivera, the Cochabamba union leader who was at the head of that city's anti-Bechtel water revolt.  "What the social movements need to do now is to continue accumulating popular forces, as we have been doing since 2000, to build up our ability to pressure whatever government that comes.  A Morales government would be less difficult to move, but it will still be difficult."


Whomever wins will govern under enormous pressure from corporate investors and international financial institutions to stay the IMF/World Bank course.  Social movement leaders here point to the steady moderation of their once-fiery Brazilian neighbor, President Lula da Silva, as an example.  In the view of Bolivia's social movements Bolivia's future will be decided, not by who wins the vote, but by the ability of the public to articulate concrete demands and to mount pressure for them with whoever wins.




As Yogi Berra once famously said, "I never make predictions, especially about the future."  Political predictions, and especially in Bolivia, may be the most risky predictions of all. 


If the polls are correct, Evo Morales and his MAS party are likely to come in a strong first place on December 18th, with perhaps as much as 35% of the vote.  That would be a substantial increase over his close 22% second place finish in 2002.  It would not be enough, however, to win him the presidency.  If not candidate receives 51% on December 18th, the election is turned over to the new Congress in January.  To be elected one of the two top place finishers needs to assemble 51% of the vote there.  Translated, this means that Bolivia's next president will be selected through a complicated set of negotiations and deal making behind closed doors.


All of Bolivia's recent governments have been led by presidents elected with votes of 22-25%, backed by deal-laden coalitions.  The most likely coalition prospect is that Quiroga will ally with the certain third-place finisher, Samuel Doria Medina, owner of Bolivia's Burger Kings.  The two are ideologically close and the influential US Embassy, eager to freeze Morales out of the presidency, is almost certain to mount heavy pressure on both to reach a deal. 


Another possibility, a far slimmer one, is that Morales seeks his own deal with Medina, a possibility amplified by Medina's recent campaign rhetoric against foreign corporations (BK not among them).  Making such a deal to win the presidency is the subject of real debate among Morales' backers.  Some will argue in favor, anxious to finally get their turn at governing.  Other backers believe that it would be a recipe for failure to enter government completely compromised from the start, with heavy opposition in Congress, and a mountain of impossible expectations from the public.


In the end, Morales may not even try to convert a first place win into the presidency.  Instead he may use the power of his victory at the polls to demand the immediate convening of the citizen assembly to rewrite the constitution.  That demand, backed by heavy street pressure around the country is very likely to be the first major flash point for Bolivia's new government.  This month's elections, in the end, are more of a pause than a solution to the social conflicts that have erupted here for the past five years.  The year 2006 may well bring the fiercest conflicts of them all.