La Paz, Bolivia. (Photo: Cristian Ruz, Flickr)

Mixed Results for the MAS in Bolivia Regional Elections

This article is co-published with NACLA.

Bolivians went to the polls on March 7, in regional elections postponed a year because of Covid-19. The governing MAS party, under the leadership of President Luis Arce, won governorships in three of Bolivia’s nine departments, or states. The party is headed to a second round in another four departments. The final results have been delayed because of a cyberattack from outside the country on the Electoral Tribunal’s website on March 9.

Santa Cruz, the country’s most populous department, was the only place where the MAS resoundingly lost a governorship. Luis Fernando Camacho won with 63.8 percent of the vote. Far-right Camacho played a pivotal role in the expulsion of ex-President Evo Morales in November 2019. His erstwhile ally, former ex-interim President Jeanine Áñez, ran for governor in her home department of the Beni in the northeast, coming in third.

On the whole, five months after a decisive victory in the presidential election, the MAS results roughly parallel those of the previous regional elections in 2015, when they won six governorships. In the mayoral races, where the MAS was expected to fare poorly because its most loyal political base is rural, they only won in two smaller departmental capitals. A potpourri of local parties built around a particular candidate won in the rest.

The most resounding victory in the mayors’ races–with 68.7 percent of the vote—went to 34-year-old Eva Copa in El Alto, Bolivia’s working class and Indigenous second largest city. Copa had successfully maintained considerable distance from Evo Morales while she was President of the Senate during the Áñez government, leading Morales, head of the MAS electoral campaign to oppose her candidacy. “We hope that her win might inspire a left-wing alternative to the MAS,” said Magali Rocha, a long time MAS supporter who voted for Copa.

Despite the party’s mixed showing, President Arce performance approval reached 54 percent just before the elections according to a recent poll, only a point shy of the 55 percent of the vote he received in his October national election victory.

Arce’s support reflects public approval of how quickly he swung into action after taking office. Arce’s support reflects public approval of how quickly he swung into action after taking office. He faced both a skyrocketing Covid-19 outbreak and an economic meltdown on his hands. He quickly ​appointed a younger administration than during his predecessor Evo Morales’ 14 years in office that he calls “a technocracy of the left.” However, only three of the 17 cabinet members are women.

Arce immediately fulfilled his most urgent electoral commitments, delivering financial help to a third of the population, levying a tax on large fortunes, and investigating the accusations of crimes committed by the Áñez government. His team quickly took on broader issues as well, such as land titling and restructuring the judicial system.

New York Times review of mortality statistics estimated that Bolivia had among the highest excess deaths in the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the country at the tail end of the vaccination line, Arce shrewdly allotted $80 million to accelerate obtaining vaccines. 15.8 million vaccines are on order, from Sputnik V, Astra Zeneca, Sinopharm, and an additional 5.1 million through the UN Covax system. Health care personnel were given top priority for inoculation once the vaccines began arriving at the end of January.. The government also quickly acquired 1.6 million Covid tests for a nation-wide free testing campaign.

Bolivia has the world’s highest percentage of people working in the informal sector, who have little choice but to go out to work. The Arce administration has made it clear it has no plans to reverting to the rigid lockdown imposed by Jeanine Áñez in 2020.

A Health Emergency Law passed on February 17 specifies that Covid-19 vaccines are free, international arrivals are required to quarantine for 14 days, and establishes limits on what private clinics can charge for medicine. But a controversial provision allows the Ministry of Health to hire new medical personnel and mandates that health, phone, and internet services cannot be interrupted during a public health crisis.

Even though the draft bill was amended twice with doctors’ input, doctors and health workers immediately went on a two-week strike, which has been extended for another two. They object that the law limits their right to protest and fear that foreign doctors, particularly Cubans, will take their jobs.

In late December, the discovery of a major new national gas field in the southeast by a consortium of multinational hydrocarbons firms working with Bolivia’s state hydrocarbons company YPFB visibly buoyed President Arche. “Our Mother earth (Pachamama) is giving Bolivians a lovely Christmas present,” he said, beaming. The find boosts Bolivia’s proven natural gas reserves that were calculated, in 2018, to last only another 15 years. Most of Bolivia’s gas is sold to Brazil and Argentina.

The shot in the arm was all the more welcome because of how much the economy had tanked in 2020, the worst tumble in 67 years. Gas revenues, the country’s main export, dropped 28 percent, although in January 2021, demand from Argentina bounced back by 58 percent. Financial reserves plunged from $3.77 to $2.14 billion dollars. Government income had already dropped steadily since 2013 when international gas prices plummeted.

In the face of this dismal panorama, Arce turned to the tactics that had proven so effective when he was Minister of the EconomyIn the face of this dismal panorama, Arce turned to the tactics that had proven so effective when he was Minister of the Economystimulating internal demand and working towards substituting imports through significant public investment and continued conditional cash transfer payments to the poor. His re-activation plan includes investing $725 million in three months on projects such as increasing natural gas exploration, constructing a zinc foundry in Oruro, and getting the El Mutún iron ore plant up and running after over a decade of suspensions. These plans generally focus on expanding resource extraction, the model the Morales government used to fund social programs and grow the economy, at an enormous cost to Bolivia’s natural environment and lowland Indigenous peoples in particular.

The day after the October 2020 election, Morales returned to Bolivia in a triumphant caravan from his year-long exile in Buenos Aires. When neither Arce nor his Vice-President David Choquehuanca took part, they made it clear they wanted to keep the former leader at a distance. “That was a real surprise,” said MAS supporter, Felipe Guzman, as Morales reached almost mythical status because of his 20-year streak of winning elections.

But while Evo still wields considerable influence, the MAS had re-aligned during year he was gone. A younger and more grassroots wing of the party is pushing for a renovation of leadership and greater internal democracy. MAS party member Juan Carlos Pinto Quintanilla argues, “We must strengthen mid-level leadership in the MAS to succeed. We need many Evos, not just one.”

Arce and Morales appear to have reached an understanding that to date works for them both, with Arce managing the government and Morales as head of the MAS.Arce and Morales appear to have reached an understanding that to date works for them both, with Arce managing the government and Morales as head of the MAS. Lucho’s low-key style contrasts with Evo’s often flamboyant, in-your-face approach and this moderation may serve to ease tensions with centrist elements of the opposition after last year’s extreme polarization.

A significant unknown is whether the new MAS government will prosecute Jeanine Áñez, Arturo Murillo, architect of much of the repression, and other officials for the violence they unleashed during the year their interim government was in power. Murillo has already fled to the United States. After being blocked repeatedly by the Áñez government, in mid-November 2020, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights sent a delegation to investigate human rights abuses in 2019. “Reconciliation is not just a phrase…We cannot have reconciliation if there is no justice,” said the new Foreign Minister under Arce, Rogelio Mayta, who represented the victims of the 2003 Black October massacres.

One of Arce’s biggest challenges is gaining better control over the police and military after they ran amok, particularly during the beginning of the Áñez government, killing 33 and wounding 804, mostly supporters of the MAS. When the head of the Cochabamba garrison, General Alfredo Cuéllar, was arrested in November for one of two massacres where 10 protestors died, the military high command immediately announced they were “disconcerted” that the General was to be tried in civilian rather than military court. They then highlighted the agreement they had signed with Áñez that protected them from all civil investigations. Arce initially reaffirmed existing military leadership, but in a surprise move late December, he replaced the entire high command.

“The regional elections clarify that the MAS-IPSP remains the only national political force,” said Juan Tellez, MAS mayor a small municipality in southern Potosí. “The right has fractured and atomized and lost any political platform. Its presence, while strong, is only local.” Another takeaway from the results is that with women accounting for only 16 percent of the candidates, the gender parity enshrined in Bolivia’s 2009 constitution remains very much a work in progress.

The unconstitutional process that allowed Evo Morales to run for a fourth term and the equally unconstitutional process that ousted him are still fresh memories in Bolivia. But the diverse political positions, parties, and outcomes in the regional contests confirm that democracy is very much alive.


Linda Farthing has written on Bolivia for The Guardian, The Economist, Al Jazeera and The Nation. Her latest book Coup: A Story of Violence and Resistance in Bolivia, co-authored with Thomas Becker, will be published by Haymarket later this year.

The president 's residence, the Palacio Quemado, in La Paz, Bolivia. Photo courtesy of Alf Igel via Flickr.

MAS Regains Bolivian Presidency

This story is republished from NACLA.

After a year of turmoil, political repression, and corruption, Bolivians overwhelmingly voted back into office the same progressive political party that was ousted a year ago. Former Finance Minister Luis Arce Catacora and his vice-presidential running mate, former Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, from the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), are predicted to have over 52 percent of the vote once all the polls report.

Midday on Monday, October 19, their closest rival, former president Carlos Mesa, expected to come in a distant second with about a third of the vote, conceded defeat. Conservative interim president Jeanine Áñez also recognized the MAS victory. In an ironic tweet given the anti-democratic behavior of her government, she wrote, “I congratulate the victors and ask them to govern thinking of Bolivia and democracy.” Later that day the Trump administration recognized Arce and Choquehuanca’s victory.

Third place in the election, at about 14 percent of the vote, went to the far-right candidate Luis Fernando Camacho, who was instrumental in the ouster of President Evo Morales on November 10 last year.

“The results of this election signal a robust repudiation of their project,” said Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network, referring to the Áñez government. “People may have been too scared to speak out against the Áñez government repression and corruption, but this result shows they voted their conscience.

Evo Morales handpicked Arce, 57, as the presidential candidate from Buenos Aires, over the objections of a considerable contingent of grassroots MAS party members. In contrast to Aymara activist and Vice President-elect David Choquehuanca, Arce, a UK-trained economist, lacks any history in the country’s social movements. Rather, he successfully managed the Bolivian economy for almost 14 years in a period of unprecedented growth and poverty reduction.

He told the New York Times, “I have no interest in power. I want to move the country forward, leave it in the hands of young people, and I’ll go.” Arce promised to “govern for all Bolivians” and “build a government of national unity.”

After weeks of mounting tension and at least 41 incidences of political violence, according to the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, voting on Sunday October 18 was remarkably peaceful. Election observer Doug Hertzler of Academics for Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean reported that in the city of Santa Cruz, “in some pro-Camacho neighborhoods MAS could not get people to volunteer as delegates at tables, but they still pulled in 30 percent of the vote.”

Fears of repression spiked when police illegally picked up Argentinian national deputy Federico Fagioli when he arrived in Bolivia as an electoral observer. He was subsequently released. Áñez repeatedly called the former MAS government a “dictatorship” and Morales a “tyrant” leading up to the elections.

Trust in the electoral process was already low with a poll published October 10 showing that only 40 percent of Bolivians believed that the electoral tribunal is honest. The day before the October 18 election, repeated accusations of fraud led the tribunal’s president Salvador Romero to cancel the quick count system, further undermining public confidence.

Since Evo Morales’ ouster last November, after weeks of protest following the contested election, Bolivia has been more polarized than since its return to democracy in 1982 after 18 years of military dictatorship. Morales fled the country after the Organization of American States (OAS) deemed that the 2019 elections showing him the winner were fraudulent. Subsequent statistical research found the OAS accusations of fraud dubious at best.

The far-right installed Jeanine Áñez in the presidency after the police mutinied against Morales. The Áñez government proceeded to unleash weeks of repression against MAS supporters in the name of pacifying the country. The scars of massacres in Senkata, El Alto and in Sacaba that left at least 26 dead and 700 wounded remain raw. “The military and police immediately started firing,” said an older woman in Senkata who did not want her name used. “I saw more than 25 people shot.”

Numerous corruption scandals plagued the interim government, including a fraudulent multi-million dollar purchase of ventilators that forced the resignation of the health minister in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Áñez repeatedly used the pandemic to consolidate her own political project and as an excuse to delay elections. But her government was so unstable that in less than a year, she had 34 different cabinet ministers. Áñez’s right-hand, Minister of Government Arturo Murillo, threatened to destroy the MAS by any means possible, peddling a toxic brew of racism and neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

Arce and Choquehuanca will take over a country in dire economic straits. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy had contracted by 7.9 percent by the end of September, the deficit had mushroomed, and unemployment skyrocketed. Before Covid-19 hit, the country grew at an annual rate of over 4 percent per year from 2008 on, thanks to a boom in commodity prices and increased taxes on natural gas.

Arce has announced plans to confront the current crisis by expanding biodiesel production and industrializing Bolivia’s lithium reserves, which are the world’s largest. Both these options raise the kinds of environmental concerns that plagued the Morales government, particularly in later years. Biodiesel can worsen deforestation and Bolivia already suffers the highest rates in South America. Lithium production requires elevated amounts of water. But Juan Carlos Pinto, who worked in the vice presidency for five years under Morales and has not taken a role in the new government, believes the administration will bring the MAS discourse in favor of the environment in greater harmony with actual policies. “We really want to advance in developing alternatives,” he said.

Keeping the charismatic and powerful Morales in check may prove a significant challenge. His decision to run for a fourth term, in violation of Bolivia’s constitution and a 2016 referendum on the issue which he lost, provoked the crisis after the November 2019 elections. “He should have resigned and then he would have been a hero,” said Cochabamba nurse Maria Rodriguez. “But he wouldn’t give up power.”

Both Arce and Choquehuanca have said repeatedly that Evo and his ministers will have no part in their government. Juan Carlos Pinto says, “We must strengthen mid-level leadership to succeed. We need many Evos, not just one.”

Several immediate challenges face Arce and Choquehuanca when they take office November 14. First, and perhaps the most worrying, is that the right-wing firebrand and third-place finisher Luis Fernando Camacho has not yet recognized the results. The other wildcards are the police and the military, who were critical in the ouster of Morales last November. Camacho has openly bragged that he bribed the police with promises of increased retirement pay and that his father convinced the military to abandon Morales. The Bolivia Information Forum estimates that 4,000 more troops were in the streets for this election than the one a year ago.

The resounding victory is a clear signal of what type of government Bolivians want going forward. “With David by my side…and with the social organizations we are responsible to…we promise to put an end to the uncertainty of the past 11 months,” Arce said on election night at his campaign headquarters. “We are going to restart our process of change without hate…and by recognizing and overcoming the mistakes we have made in the past.”



Thanks to Amy Booth in La Paz for her help with this article.

Evo Morales speaks during his closing campaign rally in El Alto city on Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo by Marcelo Perez del Carpio)

Evo Morales Wins Bolivia’s Election, but Fraud Allegations Tarnish the Victory

LA PAZ—After days of anxiety and protests, President Evo Morales has narrowly won Bolivia’s presidential election. To win, Morales needed a 10% lead over his closest rival, former President Carlos Mesa. Morales received 47.08% of the vote and Mesa 36.51%, giving him a lead of 10.56%, according to the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

For the first time in Morales’ nearly 14 years in power, the race was close from the beginning. Mesa ran on a platform largely focused on accusing Morales of being undemocratic.

“I think these are the most important elections of recent times, perhaps since the restoration of democracy in 1982,” said the national coordinator of Mesa’s coalition, José Antonio Quiroga, “because what is in play is the future of democracy itself.”

On Sunday, when limited preliminary results were in, both sides immediately declared victory. Morales registered 45% of the total, while Mesa registered 38%. As Morales failed to win by a 10-point margin, Mesa proclaimed that a runoff was inevitable. But Morales insisted that he was sure that when “the last vote is counted,” he would prevail. The remaining votes were nearly all from rural areas, and in the past, Morales has won the majority of these votes handily.

Accusations of Fraud

Mesa’s alliance, Citizen’s Community (CC), had announced that they expected fraud even before the voting began. “The civil disobedience that accompanied the election was a chronicle foretold, as the opposition planned to react in the event of any Morales claim to victory, fraudulent or not,” said Bret Gustafson, associate professor of anthropology at Washington University. 

Early Sunday night, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal suddenly suspended the vote count without explanation. The calls of fraud immediately became louder. “The longer the counting suspension lasts, the greater the chance of manipulation of the results,” Quiroga said. 

According to preliminary reports from election monitors, the process itself appeared largely transparent and they saw no evidence of fraud. But by late Sunday night, monitors from the Organization of American States, or OAS, tweeted their concerns about vote-tampering, insisting that the electoral tribunal explain why it had interrupted transmission. 

Almost 24 hours later, the tribunal updated its figures, granting Morales a lead of barely over 10%, just enough to avoid a runoff. The tribunal did not provide a reason for the delay, so the European Union delegation and several diplomatic missions joined the OAS in demanding an explanation. “The unexpected interruption of the electronic vote counting has sparked serious concerns that need to be fully and swiftly addressed,” the EU  wrote.

These worries were reinforced when the vice president of the electoral tribunal, Antonio Costas, resigned Tuesday afternoon, calling the decision to suspend the vote count on Sunday night a folly and saying he had neither participated in it nor agreed to it.

The baffling failure of the electoral tribunal to clarify what had happened amplified existing distrust. The opposition flooded into the streets in nine cities across the country. They set fire to local vote-counting centers in Potosí, Tarija, Santa Cruz, and Sucre. On Wednesday, civic committees across the country organized an indefinite general strike. 

A group of young supporters of the opposition protest in La Paz on Oct. 21, 2019. (Photo by Marcelo Perez del Carpio)

As these protests became more violent, Mesa tweeted, “The government, with its decision to ridicule the will of the people, is alone responsible for the violence that threatens Bolivia.” Mariano Perez, an 18-year-old from an upper-middle class neighborhood in La Paz, echoed Mesa. “We are here to defend our right to the vote,” Perez said at a demonstration in La Paz on Tuesday. “They changed the results by 5% in one day. That’s fraud and we won’t permit it.” 

On the other side of the police line separating the opposition from government supporters, 18- year old Laura Copeticón repeated the same phrase: “I’m here to defend my vote.” She continued, “We don’t want racist people back in power. They have always taken advantage of us.” 

In response to demands for clarification about the vote counting process, Bolivia’s Minister of Foreign Relations Diego Pary Rodríguez, officially requested that the OAS initiate an audit of the election results, and the organization agreed to undertake it.

If the results had indicated a second round, it would have been the first runoff in Bolivian history. Journalist José Rafael Vilar argued in La Paz’s daily newspaper, La Razón, that a vote for Mesa will be less a vote for him and more a vote against Morales. 

Change in Bolivia

Morales himself isn’t the only one in danger. His party is, too. As has been widely expected, the composition of the legislature will be similar to that when Morales’s party, the Movement Towards Socialism, known as the MAS, first came to power. As of Monday when a preliminary count of 83% of the votes had been registered, the MAS had lost the two-thirds majority it has held since 2009, as well as its absolute majority in the House of Deputies, while just preserving it in the Senate. 

The biggest surprise was the unexpected third place win by Korean-born evangelical Chi Hyun Chung who garnered over 8% of the vote, bypassing right-wing Senator Óscar Ortiz. As was customary in Bolivian politics before Evo Morales’s presidency began in 2006, the inter-party horse trading has begun. Ortiz announced his support for Mesa, and Chi and Mesa were in negotiations. That could’ve made for strange bedfellows as Chi wanted Mesa to abandon his commitment to LGBT rights.

Undoubtedly voter fatigue with Morales’s government has set in. Many young people have never known any other government than Evo Morales. As Vice President Álvaro García Linera sees it, “When the policies of a left government enable class ascendancy, the collective imagination of what is possible changes. If we don’t take this into account, those whose lives have improved because of what you have done can vote you out of office.” 

Copeticón said this is especially true for her generation. “Most young people are utterly dependent on social media for their information,” she said. “A lot of it is not true, and few of them know our history.” 

Leader candidate of the opposition and former president of Bolivia Carlos Mesa speaks during his closing campaign in La Paz on Oct. 15, 2019. (Photo by Marcelo Perez del Carpio)

If Mesa had won, he would have faced the challenge of negotiating with the powerful social movements that forced him out of office in 2005. The majority of them still back Morales. Mesa’s campaign has also pushed a strong environmentalist message, which has kept agribusiness in Bolivia’s economic motor, Santa Cruz, at a distance. Their interests — based in soy and cattle-ranching have found an easy alignment with Morales’s government policy of expanding the agricultural frontier. Bolivia has seen remarkable stability under Morales, largely based on the expansion of extractive activities in hydrocarbons, minerals and agriculture, with often disastrous consequences for the environment and local Indigenous peoples. 

“The 500-year-old model based on primary material extraction has come at an enormous ecological cost,” Quiroga, of Mesa’s Citizen’s Community, said. “We want to change that development pattern to an environmentally friendly one.”

This would be difficult to achieve since Mesa has promised not to change basic economic policy. “We won’t do anything to threaten monetary and financial stability,” Quiroga said. “We believe we can make economic corrections without devaluing the currency or take away the payments to the elderly, pregnant women and school children.”   

The Future for Morales and the MAS

Under Morales, one of South America’s poorest countries has consistently shown some of the region’s highest economic growth rates, according to the IMF. The economy has expanded three-fold, and investment in public services and infrastructure has been unparalleled in the country’s history. Poverty has decreased by half under Morales. 

Social inclusion under the Morales government has been striking. Signs proclaiming “all of us are equal under the law” hang in many businesses and public spaces, in an effort to diminish Bolivia’s entrenched racism towards its Indigenous population, the highest percentage in the Americas. The current dispute over the vote reflects the deep historic divides over future directions in Bolivian society, often along race and class lines. A successful professional who is Indigenous told me, “When Evo was elected, the world got better for Indigenous people like me. All the privilege the light-skinned upper class in this country had was suddenly threatened.”

The rights of women have also expanded. Legislative parity for women is the law, although at the municipal level achieving parity has been fraught with violence against women. The government passed one of the region’s strongest laws against violence against women, but the country still struggles with an alarmingly high rate of femicide

While Morales’s symbolic impact as modern Latin America’s first Indigenous president cannot be understated, his tenure has been accompanied by a steady concentration of power. “Evo is the element that permits ideological, identity and practical unification in the MAS,” Fernando Mayorga, a Bolivian political scientist, explained.

Morales’s style of governing comes from the vertical peasant and trade union structures where he got his beginnings in the late 1980s. These tend to be top-down and male-dominated, as well as heavily shaped by patronage relationships, although the grassroots do occasionally push leadership aside.  

MAS party activists are cognizant of the leadership challenges the party faces. “Renewing leadership is absolutely necessary,” Vice President García Linera said. “We made a big mistake in not training new leaders earlier.”

The economic challenges ahead are significant. Bolivia currently facing a growing budget deficit, declining international reserves, an increase in public debt with still-low international prices for commodities, as well as a currency held artificially high against the dollar. 

“The next government will be unstable, precarious, and with no clear mandate,” Mayorga said. “Without a majority in Congress, and an unfavorable economic situation, any government is going to be hard pressed to move their priorities forward.”

This story was co-published with NACLA.