Bolivia elections: Surprises galore in the South American nation

October 15, 2020 4:53 PM

The reactions of Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela were on predictable lines condemning Morales’s removal as a coup d’état.

Bolivia, named after Simon Bolivar, Latin American Liberator is famed for its highest capital in the world.

By Amb Ravi Bangar 

While the world’s eyes are fixed on the US presidential elections on November 3, on October 18, Bolivia heads for electing new president, vice president, all members of the Congress.

These elections are taking place under the shadow of political upheavals the Andean country went through last year when former president Evo Morales(a member of Ayamara indigenous community, the first indigenous and the longest-serving president in the country’s history)stood for the controversial consecutive fourth term, had the results held manipulated, contested and declared fraud, leading to violence. In the wake of violent protests, military and police rose against him and he was forced to resign, flee and took refuge in Mexico. President AMLO granted him asylum. From there he travelled to Cuba; and finally, as the Fernandez government took office in Argentina, he arrived in Buenos Aires and was promptly accorded refugee status.

The reactions of Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela were on predictable lines condemning Morales’s removal as a coup d’état. Conversely, Brazil’s president Bolsonaro refused to recognise Morales’s apparent electoral victory and celebrated his removal. The US praised the Bolivian military for “abiding by its oath”.

Those developments brought to office Jeanine Áñez Chávez(no relation of late president Chavez of Venezuela), the right-wing as the interim president. Her administration has been mired in allegations of corruption and accusations of human rights violations against political opponents. She accused Morales of sedition and terrorism.

She severed Bolivia’s alliance with Venezuela and pulled out of Venezuela-led Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a regional economic bloc. She sent home hundreds of Cuban doctors who were working in the country as the country later struggled to cope with caseloads of COVID 19 patients.

Bolivia, named after Simon Bolivar, Latin American Liberator is famed for its highest capital in the world. Ernesto“Che” Guevara after a failed expedition to the Congo in 1965, alighted on Bolivia as the launchpad for regional, then global, revolution he was captured and killed in La Higuera village in 1967.

In terms of area, Bolivia is one-third of India with a population just 11.6 million, less than that of Mumbai. It is rich in natural resources and is highly dependent on extractive industries. Bolivian exports of hydrocarbons, minerals and agricultural products, can play a role in the development of the country. However, the size and over-dependence on these sectors hinder diversification of the economy- “Dutch Disease”. This in turn creates conflict situations with interested groups such as local indigenous communities. A recent 70-year contract to export Lithium to Germany met mass protests when locals discovered how low the royalty payments would be.

Bolivia has some of the world’s largest reserves of lithium – a key component in batteries. Last year, Bolivia chose a Chinese consortium to be its strategic partner on new $2.3 billion lithium projects.

Morales in the early 1980s became active in the regional coca-growers union. In the mid-1990s, when the Bolivia was suppressing coca production under pressure from the US, Morales helped found a national political party—the leftist MAS (Movement Toward Socialism). In 2005 elections, he became also the first Bolivian president since 1982 to win a majority of the national vote since 1982 majority and was sworn in 2006. Morale comes to power on the back of the “Marea Rosada”(Pink Tide) leftist revolution sweeping Latin America. His political, economic, social reforms witnessed high economic growth, a huge improvement in social indicators for Bolivia. Under him, Bolivia’s GDP grew an average of 4.8% a year from 2004 to 2017, while the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty was more than halved from approximately 36% down to 17% during that time.

His reforms faced stiff opposition from the deeply entrenched vested interests in the country fanned by the US and Bolivia faced widespread protests and calls for secession by four provinces in 2008 euphemistically calling for “regional autonomy”.

In 2017, the MAS, the ruling party asked the constitutional court to rescind term limits for the presidency and the court did just that. A year later, the Supreme Electoral Court upheld that decision, prompting widespread street protests but paving the way for Morales to run for re-election in 2019.

The elections of 2019, were held under the shadow of these ill-advised constitutional moves and plunged the country into a deep political crisis. His departure left behind a highly polarised country sadly a far worst crisis and divide. His legacy was in tatters.

Several leaders coming to power through the ballot or bullet, over a period of time assume and convince themselves of their “indispensability”. The longer they stay in power by means foul, their “best by date” approaches faster they can think and realise.

The winning tickets will serve for the 2020–2025 term. Voting is compulsory in Bolivia, and voter turnout hit nearly 90 per cent in the October 2019 election with over 5.8 million people casting ballots.

To avoid a runoff in Bolivia’s elections, a candidate would need to secure at least 40 per cent of the votes in the first round, and have a 10-point advantage over the closest competitor.

In the 2020 elections, there are seven presidential candidates, down from the original eight after Añez last month dropped out of the race. She declared, “Today I put aside my candidacy for the presidency of Bolivia, for the sake of democracy. If we do not unite, Morales will return. If we do not unite, democracy loses.”

In any case, in the polls, she was lagging in fourth place with just 10.6 per cent support. She has been criticised for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic which has killed over 7,500 in Bolivia.

The remaining candidates are a veritable mix of political spectrum, experience, gender, ethnicities including Chi Hyun Chung, a Korean-born doctor-evangelical pastor.

Her pulling out could push the presidential contest to a second round. The recent polls have placed MAS party candidate Luis Arce in first place with more than 40 per cent support, while former President Carlos Mesa was at 26 per cent and right-wing protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho in third place with 14 per cent. Añez abandoning the race is seen to be helping Carlos Mesa. He was swift in welcoming her decision.

Next week, the Bolivian elections will no doubt be watched on the continent and beyond, for political undercurrents, struggling as it was of a decade long low growth, now battered by the pandemic and staring at an unlikely return to pre-Covid 19 growth rate before 2025.

(The author is Former Ambassador to Colombia and Ecuador, High Commissioner to Cyprus, Deputy Permanent Representative to the WTO and Deputy High Commissioner to Singapore. At the Ministry, he headed Multilateral Economic Relations, West Africa and East & Southern Africa Divisions. The views expressed are personal.)

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