With some ups and downs, twists and turns, Bolivia has thrived under Evo Morales. Now, does that mean he should rule a fourth time? Whether the charismatic but increasingly isolated and contested left-wing president wins or loses, the reality is that Bolivia faces a lot of uncertainty.
The economic scenario is shifting. Morales’ popularity is in decline due to a string of undemocratic decisions and lack of support in neighboring countries. A possible fourth presidential term would hardly be as strong as the previous ones.
His stronger opponent, Carlos Mesa, is also far from an ideal profile. Having accidentally presided over the country for a short period of time following the resignation of the elected president, he himself was forced to resign amidst a mounting social crisis. Now, the challenges he faced then are likely to return to haunt him back.
Earlier this year, popular opinion showed Morales was headed to the exit door. But now, just days before the first round of elections, Bolivia’s first indigenous president is gaining momentum again
Morales’ popularity took a toll when he decided to run for a constitutionally dubious fourth term after 51 percent of Bolivians voted against the requested Constitutional reform in a 2016 referendum. However, time passed and people have gotten over their initial rage, as new polls indicate that he is the favorite to win in the first round.
Over the summer, reports showed that Morales would get more than 40 percent of the votes by a 10-point difference to Mesa. If this happens, like the polls suggest, Morales will win in the first round, and avoid a possible runoff in December.
But polls are volatile and unreliable and both men could still face off later in the year. The results are tricky either way.
Morales and the threat to democratic values
Approaching 14 years in office, Morales is the longest-serving president in Bolivian history. In addition, his party, Movement Toward Socialism, controls all branches of government, as well as a very significant portion of the Bolivian media.
In 2016, he attempted to rewrite the country’s Constitution to allow him to run for a fourth time. Faced with intense criticism, he put his decision to popular test by holding a referendum that same year. Bolivians rejected his plight, with 51.3 percent of the population voting against his proposal.
Instead of accepting defeat, he went to the country’s highest court to seek legal validation for his decision. And he’s got it. The court, which is packed with allies of Morales, ruled that, if left out of the ballot, Morales’ human rights would be violated.
But none of this shocks us, Latin Americans. Our leaders don’t fret much about breaking democratic tradition, in part, because Latin Americans have little faith in democracy
If all of this smells sour, it is because it does. But none of this shocks us, Latin Americans. Our leaders don’t fret much about breaking democratic tradition, in part, because Latin Americans have little faith in democracy. Studies show that less than half of Latin Americans favor democracy. The same poll shows that less than a quarter is satisfied with what democracy has achieved in their countries.
Thus, while Morales’ attitude may be bad news for democracy, it likely won’t matter much to many over this election cycle.
New challenges for Morales
The economy in the region has taken a downturn in the last several years. Oil and gas revenue is in decline and Bolivia’s public debt is at record levels. This scenario means that Morales will have to shift his approach to the economy, which could affect his loyal base.
The country’s fiscal deficit is 7.8 percent and the trade deficit is 4 percent. Exports of natural gas to Brazil amid falling market prices have decreased, and the country has been unable to efficiently produce gasoline from extracted gas, which has led to increased imports of gasoline that is then sold domestically at half the price. These heavy subsidies, with the current fiscal deficit, are bound to become more difficult to finance, and Morales might be trapped, as withdrawal of petrol subsidies is unlikely, particularly after what we have recently seen in Ecuador.
Some fear Bolivia with turn into another Venezuela in the event of a crisis
Part of Morales’ popularity lies on his success with the country’s economy. During his 13-year rule, Bolivia experienced a remarkable run of economic growth and poverty reduction. Morales’ presidency is marked by impressive reduction in poverty rates. Today, 17 percent of Bolivian live in extreme poverty, down from 38 percent before the socialists took over. Inequality has shrunk dramatically: While the richest 10 percent of Bolivian used to earn 128 times more than the poorest 10 percent, today, they earn 38 times as much.
A new economic downturn will likely set things back for Bolivia. However, Bolivia’s GDP grew 4.2 percent last year and the World Bank estimates that it will grow another 4 percent this year. In this context, distant and uncertain economic risks are unlikely to trouble voters.
A new Venezuela?
Some fear Bolivia with turn into another Venezuela in the event of a crisis. That’s highly unlikely. Morales is not Nicolás Maduro, nor even the late Hugo Chávez. Critics argue that Morales’ economic successes are largely the work of a staggering boom in natural resources for much of the past decade. And this is true, but is not all the truth. And the ways an unchecked leader can manage, or mismanage, his good fortunes are infinite.
Venezuela was also at the receiving end of the same boom in prices of natural resources. And to a large extend, Venezuela’s advantage was even bigger than Bolivia’s. While Bolivia’s export revenue climbed from $2.2 billion just before Morales’ election to $12.9 billion at the peak of the boom, Venezuela’s went from $23 billion before the oil boom to $153 billion at its peak.
The way the country’s leaders handled their respective good fortunes can be seen and felt in the economy and development (or lack thereof) they are leaving behind. Considering the abysm of difference between the two countries, it is hard to argue that another four years of Morales would lead to the catastrophe that Venezuelan leaders have set in motion. At the end of the day, Venezuela stands in a geostrategic position whereas Bolivia is at the periphery of everything.
Mesa’s old ghosts
Candidate Carlos Mesa would have to face the same economic challenges. His chances at dealing with them successfully might even be harder considering his past troubles.
Mesa was president of Bolivia between 2003 and 2005, after inheriting the title from Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who resigned during the bitter Bolivian Gas War. The same wave of intense protesters that forced Sánchez from power took to the streets again in 2005, accusing Mesa of bowing to U.S. corporate interests. He was forced to resign in June 2005.
In addition to the new economic reality, Mesa would most certainly have to face the content of the country’s social movements, which are historically highly organized and active in Bolivia. These are the same social base who have been electing Morales time and time again, and the same people who forced Mesa out of power once. They are unlikely to give him an easy time.
Whatever the outcome, the elections in Bolivia are bound to reopen certain wounds. Morales fell in the same trap his fellow leaders from the Pink Wave who also failed to create a cohesive front that could ensure continuity to his project.
Instead, Morales created more of the same: a vertical movement with fragile roots that are entirely dependent on a single individual and heavy subsidies. If the cases of Brazil and Venezuela are any indication, we should have learned that cult of personality, a sin so common to the Latin American left, tends to ricochet in the opposite direction.