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Morales’ protégé wins in Bolivia, but it might be too early for celebration

Latin America has been riddled with turbulence. Last year alone, the Amazon was set viciously ablaze, major protests festered in Chile and Ecuador, and Peru entered a constitutional crisis. In light of this, where does the landslide victory of Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia fall? On a prima facie level, the electoral outcome must be celebrated. Nonetheless, what this means for the nation and wider region might not be as clear as the October 23rd election results.

The polls did not predict Luis Arce’s triumph. It is not surprising, however, when taking into account the failed revanchist narrative of the interim government under Demócratas’ centre-right president, Jeanine Áñez, which was aggressively anti-populist but repressive of social movements, particularly those calling for fixed election dates. The MAS triumph came from the ability of the left to stay united in the face of chaos, namely the forced exile of former president and MAS party leader Evo Morales. Historical precedent shows a united left is no easy feat, but the MAS unity is particularly impressive when taking into account the social groups composing its mosaic: indigenous activists, working-class campesino advocates, and middle-class representatives. Their ability to cooperate in making their electability and performance attractive to the electorate is also commendable. MAS, as a political party, could be characterized by its mixed approach of direct action (ie., roadblocks and marches), and more traditional electoral campaign work. This approach has not been unanimously popular in the past, but in the recent election was clearly a success.

Áñez’s interim leadership was a result of week-long protests. Allegations of Morales committing electoral fraud in 2019 – to facilitate a twenty year term – did not sit well with the public, and led to a police and military intervention which forced Morales into exile in Argentina. The 2020 election result is thus both a definitive ousting of the unelected interim right-wing government and, to a lesser extent, a testament to the popularity of MAS. The fact that MAS secured a win without Morales, a result which the leading opponent Carlos Mesa submissively accepted, is massively significant within the context of South America. To some, it indicates a possible divergence from the typical regional chronicles, as a territory which suffers from both a ‘cult of personality’ curse (enter Perón, Chávez, Ibarra, etc), and the infamous slippery slope of coups, where interim governments tend to forget their temporal limits and cling to power through violent means.

Although the fact that it took less than a year to replace a coup-installed government is worthy of praise, it is admittedly naive to fully endorse the notion that Arce’s triumph is a complete deviation from the cult of personality politics. Arce became a respectable and well-known political figure under Morales as Minister of Economy and Public Funding from 2007 to 2017, and again in 2019. He is also to annul Morales’ detention order, signifying the former president’s imminent return to Bolivia – perhaps a tacit means by which to display Morales’ continued link to MAS and the elected government. It is not clear to what extent, if at all, he will serve as merely a vessel for a shadow Morales leadership. However, the fact that MAS underwent internal party reforms post-coup leaves room for ambiguity. It should also be noted that the new government, to be sworn in November 8th, has already been met with some resistance. Dispersed demonstrations against new allegations of electoral fraud continue, which independent election overseers deny. 

The significance of this election for Latin America, to the dismay of those predicting the return of a post-neoliberal ‘pink-tide’, is unclear. Although this appears to be a decisive socialist win, any ripple effect is overwhelmingly limited. The region is politically fragmented and socially tense, without any clear political hegemony. This is in contrast to previous eras, such as the 1970s and 1990s, where one could see distinct and homogenous political momentums. Regardless of the wider impact, however, I would echo the sentiment of many Latin Americans who are initially hesitant to celebrate a win from a party that has been in power for decades. Latin America’s fragile institutions are fertile ground for corruption and have been for centuries. Yet, I allow myself to be coaxed into a wary optimism by virtue of the aforementioned MAS reforms and third party confirmations of electoral transparency. Though we have dwelled on the region’s political turmoil, and notwithstanding the problems brought by the pandemic on the region, the events in Bolivia do show there is reason for hope, if cautiously so. 

Illustration: Eve Miller

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