Bolivia: a referendum decided by penalty shootout

On February 21st, the Bolivian people voted in a referendum to amend the country’s constitution and decided not to allow President Evo Morales to run for re-election in 2019. Español

Pablo Stefanoni
7 March 2016

President Evo Morales. La Paz. Bolivia. José Luis Quintana/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

Evo Morales placed himself in what seemed to be, from the start, the most difficult election for his administration, after a decade-long string of overwhelming electoral triumphs. As if electoral “abstinence” were an unbearable situation for a leader who needs constant approval from the masses, the Bolivian president launched a referendum to enable him to run for a fourth term, at a time when he has still four years to go to finish the third. The government that drew up the new state constitution that laid the foundations of the Bolivian Plurinational State in 2009 decided to amend it, six years after it was passed. The question that was submitted to the voters was: Do you agree with the reform of article 168 of the State Constitution, allowing the President and the Vice-president to be re-elected twice in two consecutive terms?

The first obvious challenge a referendum of this nature poses is that it unites all the opposition around the No option. From racists who never wanted a farmer-indigenous government to those who criticise it for the exact opposite - that is, for not being a true indigenous government, but an ersatz emanating from a  “whitish” matrix, or for being blatantly anti-indigenous  -, the No coalition amalgamated a vote that would have never united behind a common candidate. This is understandable and in no way disqualifies the reasons for the vote, but it clarifies certain readings of the results that, as happens often in these cases, try to see them in a one-dimensional way. Montesquieu did not resurrect in the Andes, nor was the Empire’s black-hand behind it all, nor did the ancestral Buen vivir (good living, or living well) awake the Andean deities to avenge Evo’s neo-developmentalist populism.

Perhaps it is something much simpler: erosion after ten years in government – and the difficulties of turning mobilizing utopias into vital realities –, interspersed political errors, such as calling an early referendum after the 2014 electoral triumph (61% of the vote), and a poor campaign. Thus, what was seen as a de-polarization process in 2010-2014, assited by Morales’s economic success, has now been reversed into an almost fifty-fifty re-polarization. In short, on February 21st, Evo lost more to Evo than to the opposition.

The problem with the referendum

In the last decade, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) has successfully put up a new economic model based on statism and some macroeconomic orthodoxy, and has structured a new state, more open to the country’s diversity. “Socialism is consistent with macroeconomic stability,” said on one occasion Luis Arce Catacora, who has been Minister of Economy and Public Finance for the last ten years (quite a milestone in a country known for its economic upheavals, including hyperinflation in the 1980s). The Chuquiago boys – an ironic reference to the Aymara name of La Paz – showed an efficiency that neoliberals had failed to achieve, partly due to the high prices of raw materials but also to the policies of domestic market expansion, nationalization of hydrocarbons, taxation and a “cautious” management of the economy (1). Today, the situation has changed due to the falling commodity prices, but the economic armour is still in place and working, and even strong public investment is expected.

The problem with the referendum is that it has sparked an anti-reelectionist feeling that draws on the perennial anti-statist reflexes of Bolivians (even if they demand “more State”). Hernando Siles, promoter of a lukewarm social reformism, faced a popular uprising in 1930 when he tried to “perpetuate” himself in power. The leader of the National Revolution, Victor Paz Estenssoro, faced a coup after taking office for a second consecutive term in 1964 and was forced into exile in Peru. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, during his second non-consecutive term in 2003, had to flee the country in a helicopter in the middle of the Gas War… So, aversion to “perpetuation” and its distrust of power is one of the hallmarks of the Bolivian political culture - though the reach of “liberal” political culture during the democratic consolidation period since 1982 should not be underestimated.

Morales was able to numb these reflexes, and as president-cum-symbol of a new era, he has been winning election after election throughout a decade. Now, however, the magic has vanished to a large extent. In any case, in a politically unstable country like Bolivia, having his grasp on nearly half of the votes (48.71%) after a decade is no minor achievement. Whereas the No side votes respond to quite dissimilar sensibilities, those on the Yes side are supporting the continuity of the cocalero leader. The opposition knows full well that the MAS has not been defeated, but that the governmental project has nonetheless certainly been weakened.

The results of February 21st can be interpreted as a loss of the sectors which the MAS had been conquering in the polls – through its hegemonic expansion – but which were far from being electorally loyal: voters from the big cities and the autonomist eastern part of the country, in and around Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The farmers and the intermediate-city voters saved the president from a larger defeat. But poorly resolved local conflicts in Potosí and El Alto weakened Evo and the MAS strongholds in the Andean zones.

Evo has always believed that he has a “blood pact” with the farmers, who will never abandon him, whereas urban support is always suspicious and volatile. This is where the strength and the weakness of Evo’s project lies: its rural matrix (although, paradoxically, the country is becoming increasingly urban).

To these factors, one should add the campaign, where effectiveness was more on the No side, especially in the social media (as a matter of fact, after the referendum the president asked their use to be discussed, because of the dirty wars “to topple governments” that are being waged through them).  Some public figures – such as journalists Amalia Pando (2) or the controversial Carlos Valverde, from Santa Cruz – joined a vast number of opposition regional authorities and invigorated the campaign, which sometimes lacked the necessary funding (another difficulty of the MAS has always been the big-city mayoralties and the departmental governorships: Evo’s prestige has always been inversely proportional to the low brightness of the MAS-controlled local governments).

Since 2009, pragmatism enabled Evo to broaden his base to Santa Cruz, at the same time as his government became more “normal” and lost some of its revolutionary epic. Not by chance, the discourse of change has been replaced by the discourse of stability. And for the first time since 2005, Morales’s referendum campaign speech lacked images of the future and took refuge in the conquests of the past. It is no coincidence that, after the unfavourable results, even during the official count, Evo Morales remembered the attacks he received as presidential candidate in 2005, when he was accused of being a “Taliban” and a “drug dealer”. He took refuge in the farmers’ Evo that the management of power has been eroding - a return to the origins and the environment where he feels safe, that of the ethnic-cultural “blood pact”.

In a context of rising loss of initiative, the opposition bullets – sparse, by the way – began to have an impact against the shield of the previous months and years. Thus, the allegation that a former sentimental partner of Evo’s was in charge of a Chinese company that received public contracts without tender had an impact on Evo’s ethical capital, which is the source of his political legitimacy. To this were added the Indigenous Fund scandals: the ghost projects financed by the state which ended up challenging the indigenous capacity to renew politics. Finally, the news that Vice President Álvaro García Linera did not finish his university degree course in mathematics in Mexico had a disproportionate impact and forced him to revalidate, on the defensive, his status as an intellectual – despite the fact that he is a regular guest at several prestigious universities for his theoretical and political work.

In addition, the No found an argument that became a powerful weapon because it fitted well with a general feeling, especially in urban areas: that Evo’s government was a good one in many ways, but that it was not a good idea to “perpetuate” him in power. Writer Edmundo Paz Soldán, for example, said that in this decade, Bolivia, thanks to “an economy that has not stopped growing, has reduced extreme poverty, has expanded the middle class, and has significantly improved our indicators on health and education.” He added that “Morales has handled the economy well, has promoted the necessary political inclusion of formerly excluded groups, and has consolidated a coherent maritime policy. He has also promoted the country in the international arena.” He argued, however, that “in the negative sense, there is institutionalized corruption, lack of independence of the judiciary, an absence of policies promoting gender equality, and a true industrialization plan that would make Bolivia no longer dependent on commodities.” He concluded: “I just hope that Bolivia is in the position to show the continent that, even though I admire and approve of Evo’s administration, it puts more faith in its institutions and a democracy that limits its leaders’ impulses to stay in power forever” (3). This line of reasoning encapsulates many perceptions that strengthened the No vote - the most difficult ones for the government to neutralise firing economic data.

But the loss of magic also revived other ghosts. The El Alto town hall fire caused by “parents and family men” who were protesting against young opposition mayor Soledad Chapetón (4), made it clear that the repertoire of collective actions which in 2003 opened the way to the epic Gas War, can be perceived in another context as excessive forms of protest which prevent the normal functioning of the institutions and put lives at risk. All of this generated a strong reaction on the part of the “silent majorities” against social movements, withdrawn into corporatism and mafia-like ways, such as the El Alto union leader Braulio Rocha, who had warned Chapetón that he would be “her nightmare” and has now been arrested for arson.

What next

One peculiar aspect of the national-popular governments is the difficulty they experience in accepting a new order, embodied for example in the new constitutions approved during their administrations, and their tendency to think of them as resulting from a transitory force correlation, and hence that need to be changed whenever the possibilities for “progress” diminish. This causes a paradoxical situation – which has also happened in Venezuela -: that given the attempt by the government to change the new constitution, its defense ends up in the hands of those on the right who once sought to prevent its passing. Another difficulty these governments face is conducting politics effectively once their enemies have been weakened.

Now that the referendum results have been confirmed, the MAS must think of another candidate for 2019. This could have a positive result: forcing the party to leave its inertia of automatic electoral triumphs and to update its transforming offer. But it is too soon to anticipate the name of any potential candidate. Chancellor David Choquehuanca? Vice-president Alvaro García Linera? President of the Senate and former journalist Alberto Gringo González? In an interview in Santa Cruz’s newspaper El Deber published during the referendum campaign, the President seemed uncomfortable when he was asked whether the Vice-president (who has been teaming up with him for the last ten years) would be the B plan if the referendum was lost. Although he praised him as a co-pilot, he acknowledged him more as a secretary than a would-be presidential candidate (5). Perhaps this was just a phrase he uttered out of discomfort for the question about a potential defeat. But perhaps he was setting the stage. On the other hand, of course, the referendum result has also been a No to García Linera, for it was the full ticket’s new term that was rejected at the polls. Will Evo try to be like Putin and look for his Medvédev, or a Lula searching for a candidate who is not a mere dauphin? There has been some talk of a woman candidate, so as “to complete the cultural revolution” but, at any rate for the time being, opinion polls show that it would be an uphill battle for the former president of the Senate and current president of Congress Gabriela Montaño. With Evo, however, one should not rule out any surprises as far as names are concerned. Undoubtedly, though, current changes in the region are not helping the MAS.

But over and above candidacies, the question is whether the government will manage to captivate again Bolivians with new transformative proposals. The ideas on Bolivia as an energy powerhouse have been too success- boasting (and reminiscent of the 1950s), thus overshadowing real progress in the hydrocarbon sector, whereas health and education have remained pending issues. Something similar has happened with the purchase of a Chinese satellite, which generated much overacting, effective at first, but counterproductive afterwards. As I have pointed out in a recent article, “the possibility of an industrial ‘great leap forward’ without the necessary technical-scientific apparatus, becomes illusory and linear. The 2025 development plan is too general (…) The importance that the Bolivian president has given to the passage through Bolivia of the Dakar rally – despite its intrinsic colonialism and its environmental impact – is one of the elements of tension in the official discourse, which has been drifting towards more centrist positions. At the same time, the emphasis on macroeconomic figures is clogging some of the debates on the country’s future” (6). 

On the No side, a “new right” opposition, which has territorial bases in several regions, will try to capitalize on the referendum results. So will the minority efforts a progressive, non-governmental option. The No camp will have to face its own internal battles to overcome strong disintegration tendencies, the discredit of its old figures (associated with governments of the past), and the need for generational renewal (there are mayors and governors under 50 who are looking to the future with different political eyes). For the time being, the No is a juxtaposition of multiple voices (against “arrogance”, “abuses”, the “new elites”, the most hotheaded ones against “dictatorship” – and the more extreme ones against the Indians -, many in favour of “democracy” and “the Constitution”) which give expression to genuine demands, reject unnecessary grievances, and call into question the handling of a constitution that was intended to be a refounding one. But, as we know, politics depends to a large extent on who captures history’s “elusive moments” (7). And these moments will arise with Morales’s exit from the electoral game, at least as a candidate, and the opening of a brand new scenario from the one the country has enjoyed since 2006. In the meantime, the figure of the “two Bolivias” is back. But contrary to the circular history temptations, Bolivia is not the same: it has undoubtedly progressed in many ways, even though many of its demons refuse to fade away.

1. Óscar Granados, “A decade with Evo Morales’s Chuquiago boys”, El País, Madrid, 20-2-2016.

2. Pando resigned from his program at Erbol, one of the most listened to radio stations in Bolivia, claiming that the government was financially choking the station, after the former cancelled all government advertising.

3. “Evo Morales has many characteristics of the caudillos of the past”, La Tercera, Santiago de Chile, 20-2-2016.

4. Pablo Stefanoni: “The Andean new right”, revista Anfibia,

5. Pablo Ortiz: “Evo Morales: ‘Álvaro is my best secretary, he has never thought of himself as presidential candidate’”, El Deber, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, 20-1-2016.

6. Pablo Stefanoni: “Can Evo lose on F21?”, revista Panamá,

7. The quote from Mussolini is cited in Emilio Gentile’s Fascism and the March on Rome. The birth of a regime, Edhasa, Buenos Aires, 2014.

This article was previously published by La linea de fuego.

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