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An Andean crisis of democracy

John Crabtree
16 November 2005

2005 has been a year of political convulsions in Latin America. The last two weeks alone have seen high-level disagreement and tumultuous protest at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina; a continuation of the series of corruption scandals that has riven Brazil’s governing Workers’ Party; evidence of an intensification in Colombia’s long-running civil war; and a bitter dispute between the presidents of Mexico and Venezuela, Vicente Fox and Hugo Chávez.

One of the most politically febrile zones of the region is the southern Andes – especially Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador – where public repudiation of traditional parties and their leaders is generating new challenges to the status quo. According to the Latinobarómetro, a Latin American polling survey, dissatisfaction with existing institutions is particularly marked in these three countries.

Bolivia

Of the three, presidential and congressional elections are most imminent in Bolivia. The original schedule was for elections to be held on 4 December, but disagreements between different departments over the number of representatives they should have in congress caused a delay; they will now be held on 18 December.

One of the most notable features of the election line-up is the absence of many of the parties that have dominated Bolivia’s political scene for the last two decades or longer. Even the once-mighty Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), a well-organised and once disciplined party that triumphed in the 1952 revolution, is likely to attract only meagre support in the poll.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University’s Centre for Latin American Studies

Also by John Crabtree on openDemocracy:

Bolivia’s retreat from civil war” (June 2005)

Peru: the next Andean domino?” (June 2005)

Bolivia on the brink” (October 2005)

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It is the figure of Evo Morales, the leader of the country’s coca workers, who now dominates the scene. Most opinion polls put him and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), a relatively new party, well ahead in the polls. The left-wing MAS has grown because of disenchantment with the failure of liberal economics to reduce poverty and inequality. The traditional parties – the MNR, the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) and Acción Democratica Nacionalista (ADN) – are widely repudiated as inept and corrupt.

However, even if Morales wins more votes than his adversaries, he may yet be denied the presidency. The Bolivian constitution specifies that where no candidate achieves a plurality (50% plus one) of votes, the newly elected congress chooses the president from the two front-runners. Morales’ main contender is a former president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga. Quiroga may be able to conjure up enough congressional support to block Morales from becoming president.

Were this to happen, Bolivia may well descend once again to the sort of street protest which prompted the resignation of two recent presidents: Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003 and Carlos Mesa in June 2005. Morales enjoys strong backing among the various social movements which have become key actors in Bolivian politics in recent years.

The 18 December elections are therefore likely to be a pivotal event in which the two main candidates have done their utmost to distance themselves from those parties and their leaders who have gone before. They are highly contrasting figures. Morales, who could be Bolivia’s first-ever president of pure indigenous extraction, has a strong populist streak. He has sought to whip up nationalist sentiment – particularly with respect to the United States – and has developed privileged ties with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. His political discourse is well to the left of centre.

Quiroga, who was vice-president in the late 1990s and became president for a brief period in 2001-02, is a much more conservative figure, closely associated with the sort of agenda backed by the World Bank. But since 2002, he has sought to distance himself from his previous identification with the right-wing ADN, a party founded by former dictator General Hugo Banzer. In early November he sought to sever links with a number of traditional politicians who had previously jumped on his electoral bandwagon.

Peru

Presidential elections in Peru are due in April 2006, but campaigning is already well under way. Under the Peruvian system, if no one candidate reaches 50% plus of the vote, there is a second round of voting between the two front-runners in the first round.

As in Bolivia, most political parties are distrusted by the electorate, and confidence in democratic institutions generally is lacking. In the 1990s, the then president Alberto Fujimori managed to perpetuate himself in power by vilifying the discredited parties. He held them responsible for the hyperinflation of the late 1980s and the seemingly unstoppable growth of Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist-inspired insurgency which brought panic to the country. Fujimori’s success in stabilising the economy and defeating Sendero brought him much public support.

The collapse of the Fujimori regime in 2000 amid major corruption scandals gave a new lease of life to the beleaguered parties. Although these now dominate the electoral landscape, support for them is lukewarm and they lack any real organised presence in society. There are three main contenders for the presidency: Unidad Nacional, a centre-right force with strong business support led by Lourdes Flores; the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (Apra) whose leader, Alan García, wants to return to the presidency he held (1985-90); and a loosely structured Frente del Centro with former interim president Valentín Paniagua (2000-01) as candidate.

But there are also two important jokers in the political pack. The first is Alberto Fujimori himself, who catapulted himself into the headlines in Peru by returning to Latin America from self-imposed exile in Japan. He now finds himself in detention in Chile, pending an extradition request from Peru. Even if he cannot stand for president in the elections – the congress has barred him from standing for office – Fujimori calculates that his return will add considerable impetus to his supporters’ campaigns in the congressional elections. Many Peruvians are mobilising against his return to the political fray, but a strong Fujimorista bloc in the next congress would be well placed to demand his rehabilitation.

The second wild card is the figure of Ollanta Humala, a right-wing former military officer who is seeking to rally ethnic resentments in Peru. Humala, who may yet be prevented from running for president, became a well-known figure after he staged an abortive military rising against Fujimori in 2000 at the tail-end of the latter’s government. Opinion polls suggest he enjoys significant support in some areas, and that his ability to profit from disenchantment with mainstream parties should not be underestimated.

Ecuador

The situation in Ecuador is perhaps even more confused than in Bolivia and Peru. Here elections are not due until late 2006, but the government of Alfredo Palacio, who assumed office in April after Lucio Gutiérrez was forced to flee abroad, lacks public backing. Ecuadorean politics is notoriously fractious, and public confidence in political elites is also lacking. Gutiérrez himself, a former military officer, has now returned to Ecuador and is denying corruption charges. He came from the political margins and initially enjoyed the backing of the country’s powerful leftward-leaning indigenous movements, but lost this support when he sought to strike a deal with the IMF and enforce fiscal austerity.

Palacio’s standing has also been undermined by a bruising conflict with congress over his plans for reforming the constitution. Earlier in November, the electoral authorities rebuffed him by refusing to hold a referendum on the election of a constituent assembly.

The prospect for 2006

With eight national elections due in 2006 (in addition to the polls in Honduras and Chile as well as Bolivia before the end of 2005), next year promises to be an even more politically charged period in Latin America. A long, painful search for new models and institutions that can address the deep structural inequalities of the region is continuing, against the backdrop of significant changes in the global economy. The only certainty is that there are more surprises ahead.

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