Evo Morales's challenge

John Crabtree
25 January 2006

Evo Morales did not take long after his inauguration as Bolivia's new president on 22 January 2006 to make his political intentions clear. The first cabinet he announced the following day is designed to perform two tasks: to give a voice to the social movements that accompanied his Movimiento al Socialismo (Mas) in December's election landslide, and to draw a line under the past by showing that his election does indeed represent a fresh start in Latin America's poorest country.

The coming to power of Evo – as he is universally known in Bolivia – has awoken far more international interest than is usual for a change of government in Bolivia. His much-publicised visit to Europe and Asia at the beginning of January involved meetings with major world leaders. For some, including members of the business community, Morales's confirmation as Bolivia's head of state is seen as further evidence of the current left-wing tilt in Latin American politics. For others it represents the initiation of a period of greater respect for national autonomy in a country long inured to outside interference. Evo's inaugural speech on 22 January called for greater respect both for the country's downtrodden indigenous majority and for Bolivia's sovereignty.

A question of legitimacy

The scale of Morales's election victory – he won nearly 54% of the vote in an eight-horse race – provides him with the legitimacy that has eluded his predecessors. No presidential candidate has won by an absolute majority of votes since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1982. The turnout in the elections – 85% of registered voters voted – was also unusually high. Unlike his predecessors, he now enjoys an absolute majority in the chamber of deputies. The Mas swept the board in western highland departments of the country, but also – significantly – won a third of the vote in the eastern lowland department of Santa Cruz.

The size of his victory also represents an important shift in a country where, for much of the last five years, governments have lacked popular legitimacy. It represents a strong rebuff to the political parties which, through a sequence of pacts, have ruled the country for the last twenty years. The Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), Bolivia's dominant party since the 1940s, has only a handful of congressmen, while the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (Mir) and Acción Democrática Nacionalista (ADN) have all but disappeared from the scene. This weakens the capacity of Morales' opponents to mount a strong parliamentary opposition.

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)

"An Andean crisis of democracy" (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

In choosing his cabinet, Morales has made no concessions to his opponents in the business community. Most appointments are of people who represent the social movements that make up the Mas. There are only two ministerial appointments (out of fourteen) granted to people in Santa Cruz. Management of the economy will be in the hands of Carlos Villegas, a leftwing academic from the San Andrés University in La Paz. The new finance minister is Luis Alberto Arce, another academic with experience of working in the central bank. The all-important minister for developing Bolivia's gas potential is Andrés Soliz Rada, a leftward-leaning journalist and lawyer.

In appointing a "political" cabinet, Morales has sought to avoid the past tendency to give the top jobs to technocrats. The appointments are designed to give the impression that his government will be very different from its predecessors, and that a line is being drawn over the past. In practice, future policy direction will depend greatly on who is appointed at sub-ministerial level. Bolivia lacks a structured civil service, and there is likely to be a major shake-up in appointments within individual ministries. Morales, who has a reputation for personal integrity, has emphasised that his administration will serve the people and will avoid the sort of clientilistic practice that brought the old political parties into disrepute.

A fourfold agenda

In pursuit of its electoral commitments, the new government will push ahead with its agenda in four main areas: constitutional, regional, economic, and narcotic.

The first of these will be to begin the process of constitutional reform by holding elections for a constituent assembly. The elections are now scheduled for 2 July, with the new assembly beginning its deliberations on 6 August. Morales wants to hold these elections while he still feels that he has the tide of voter support behind him. The assembly will seek to give a greater voice to Bolivia's indigenous population, which in spite of their numbers – they represent over 60% of the population – feel that they have been systematically excluded from decision-making since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Although there has been symbolic recognition of the "plurinational" and "multiethnic" nature of the country in recent years, political and economic power has remained in the hands of a small mestizo elite.

A second issue that the assembly will have to confront is the demand for greater regional autonomy. This will provide the means by which departments like Santa Cruz seek to free themselves of tutelage from La Paz. Ruben Costa, the new elected prefect of Santa Cruz, is among those keen to pursue regional autonomy. Morales will be wary of the dangers of granting the cruceño elite too much power, so conflict is likely.

The third key issue will be reforming the contractual arrangements by which foreign companies (chiefly in the all-important gas sector) do business in Bolivia. Morales' position is to reaffirm Bolivian national ownership of all hydrocarbon reserves, but to invite foreign companies to invest in refining and transportation. He may be tempted by his electoral mandate to push the companies rather further than the terms already laid out in the existing hydrocarbons law, passed earlier in the year by the Carlos Mesa administration (2003-05). He may bargain that the size of Bolivia's reserves plus the buoyancy of international demand (especially in Brazil, Argentina and Chile) will convince the oil companies to sign new contracts.

The fourth key issue is coca. Morales has said that he wishes to legalise coca cultivation, whilst stressing that this would not mean legalising the manufacture of cocaine. The problem is that Bolivia grows much more coca than it can consume itself, and most production goes into making cocaine. By international law, Bolivia is prevented from exporting products made of coca (not cocaine) to other countries. Since the early 1980s, the United States has used all available leverage to coax successive Bolivian governments to eradicate coca. It was the eradication programme in Morales's native Chapare that first gave him a leg-up in local politics, and Morales can ill afford to lose his local support through a policy of eradication.

A test of leadership

In spite of his solid election backing and support in congress, Morales will have to tread a fine line between honouring his election promises and facing up to the realities of presiding over a poor and dependent country. He will also have to show that he can move from being a leader of social movements in opposition to running a government. In the past, especially during the Mesa government, he showed himself to be something of a pragmatist, responding to contradictory pressures with a degree of flexibility. However, he lacks expertise and a team of experienced administrators.

In addition to these challenges, Morales faces potential opposition from three main political interests.

The first is from a number of leaders on the left who have already warned the new government to expect trouble if he fails to deliver on its promises. The Mas is not a party as such, and the social movements which helped bring Morales to power are a fragmented and loose coalition. Leaders like Roberto de la Cruz, an important figure in the politics of El Alto, the slum area adjacent to La Paz, are radicals with their own agenda. So too is Felipe Quispe who, despite his poor showing in the elections, will not hesitate to mobilise the Aymara of the Altiplano against Morales if he feels that their interests are ignored by the new government.

The second source of opposition lies in the hostility of elite groups in Santa Cruz, where anti-indigenous white racism has longed mixed with demands for self-rule. Upper-class cruceño families have repeatedly shown their ability to use the threat of secession to maintain their political pre-eminence, and are in no mood to beg favours from an indigenous president. Morales's promises to initiate land reform in the eastern lowlands to give land to the landless will be at the expense of large-scale farmers. The new agriculture minister, Hugo Salvatierra, is a social activist from Santa Cruz who has made clear that the land issue will be a priority. Conflicts over landownership may provide the spark to ignite a serious regional confrontation.

The third oppositional force lies in the undisguised anatagonism in Washington where, on both sides of the political divide, Morales tends to be seen as a beneficiary of the drugs trade and friend of such "anti-American" figures as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Although he will be able to count on friendship from Lula in Brazil and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, this may count for little among the "hawks" in the Bush administration. In a telling gesture earlier this year, United States defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld travelled to Paraguay to visit a US military base close to the Bolivian frontier.

As always with Bolivia, the main US concern is drugs. An early test for the state of US-Bolivian relations will come at the end of February when the Bush administration decides whether or not to "decertify" Bolivia for failing to collaborate in the "war against drugs". Decertification can bring with it a suspension of US economic assistance or, much more seriously for Bolivia, US pressure for multilateral banks to suspend their lending programmes. Bolivia is very dependent on the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank for maintenance of its social spending budget.

Evo Morales's election is a major personal and political achievement, the culmination of a long struggle, and a historic moment in Bolivian politics. The new president has made a confident start. In the period ahead, he and the movement he leads will be tested as never before.

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