A Full Moon after Bolivia’s Elections?

October 10, 2014

Jeanette Bonifaz

Campaigning for the Bolivia’s presidential election officially ended on Wednesday, ahead of voting on Sunday. The election, which includes 272,058 voters living abroad in 33 countries, will be observed by a mission from the Organization of American States. While the final outcome is likely to be a first-round victory for the incumbent, Evo Morales, the most interesting results will come from the four departments of the media luna region. In the past, the Morales administration has faced significant opposition there, including a sometimes violent secessionist movement.  This year, the president has a chance to win majority support in all four of the departments, which would mark a major turning point in Bolivian politics.

Earlier this week, Morales expressed confidence that he will surpass his 2009 record of support, and that as much as 70 percent of the electorate will vote for him this year. Morales won previous elections handily, with 54 percent of the vote in 2005, and 64 percent in 2009. When his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), celebrated the end of its campaign in what has been an opposition stronghold, Santa Cruz, on Tuesday, thousands of people came together to show their support, demonstrating changing dynamics in the relationship between the MAS and Santa Cruz. Then on Wednesday, Morales brought his campaign to an end in El Alto, where he claimed that he will win in all nine of Bolivia’s departments, saying:

Bolivia is united, the “half-moon” is over, now it is a full moon. We have all united at the top the social forces and the youth, who have joined for two reasons: because of the patriotic agenda and stability and because of the economic growth that guarantees hope for future generations.

The “half moon,” or “media luna,” is located in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia and is comprised of the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija. According to an IPSOS poll the MAS could win in Santa Cruz with 50 percent of the votes. In the 2009 presidential elections, Morales lost in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando. Things have been changing, however, and Morales has been strategic in building and maintaining alliances in the media luna departments. Not only do polls show that Morales might win in Santa Cruz, but he might also win in Beni (44 percent), Pando (54 percent), and Tarija (43 percent).

Winning in Santa Cruz would mark an important victory. Illustrating the changing support for Morales, Nick Miroff reported for the Washington Post that even businessmen have come around to his presidency. For example, even Luis Barbery, the president of Bolivia’s leading business and trade association, CAINCO, said that “This is a great moment for Bolivia,” and “We have a new understanding with the government.” Morales’ success can be attributed to the fact that, besides increasing investment in social programs and public works, he “also practiced fiscal discipline – running a budget surplus every year – and quietly accommodated private-sector interests, delivering 7 percent economic growth last year.” CEPR recently examined in a blog post the economic and social changes in Bolivia since Evo’s election in 2005.

The main opposition figure is Samuel Doria Medina of the from National Unity Front (UN) party, a cement magnate and one of Bolivia’s wealthiest people. Doria Medina has also predicted that he will win in the departments of Beni, Pando, and Santa Cruz.

The assured presidential victory of Morales, some argue, can be in part attributed to the pact reached between Doria Medina and Rubén Costas of the Social Democrat Movement (MDS), whose parties are now grouped under the banner of the Democratic-Union (UD). Costas is Santa Cruz’s governor and is also a former secessionist leader. UN dissidents claim Doria Medina is himself a “dissident” of the Frente Amplio, a bloc comprised of political organizations, civil society groups and intellectuals in order to bring about an alternative to the Morales administration. José Antonio Quiroga of the Forum of Democratic Citizenship, said the following of the Doria Medina-Costas (UD) alliance as he explained his decision to leave the Frente Amplio, in a conference:

The UN accepted the exclusion of the Frente Amplio and its allies imposed by the MDS and formed another electoral alliance, the Democratic-Union (UD). Such a circumstantial alliance is not the programmatic, institutional, and lasting option we sought to build (…) we do not feel represented by the agreement.

 In addition, as Emily Achtenberg notes in a blog post for NACLA:

At the same time, 600 militants from the conservative Democratic National Action Party (ADN) of Santa Cruz, formed by ex-military dictator Hugo Banzer, have been welcomed by the MAS leadership after renouncing their party affiliations. More than a few conservative opposition leaders from the old neoliberal parties have reinvented themselves as MAS legislative candidates, much to the chagrin of long-time progressive constituents who feel unrepresented by them.

The real challenge to the Morales administration comes from indigenous and environmental groups, many of which were part of the coalition that brought him to power. Criticisms from these groups focus on matters such as the administration’s failure to structurally change the extractivist economy and its attempt to build a highway through the TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure) in the Amazon. In 2011, MAS lost the two-thirds majority it had in the legislature after five indigenous deputies abandoned the party over the TIPNIS conflict.

Another example of this dilemma is a law passed on October 2012, the “Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well,” which far from calming indigenous and environmental groups sparked significant criticisms. Indigenous groups like CONAMAQ (the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu) claimed that instead of promoting alternative and sustainable development, the law reinforced the government’s extractivist and developmentalist agenda. As of May 2014, the government was not able to properly implement the law. Moreover, Natalie Alem from the Andean Center of Communication and Development points to “bad examples” of decisions taken in the context of the law, like the hydro-metallurgical project in Corocoro, the activities of the transnational mining company San Cristóbal, petroleum exploration in northern La Paz, and construction of mega dams on the Madeira River.

Other organizations like the Confederation of Indigenous People of Bolivia (CIDOB) have also rallied against the government. CIDOB represents 34 indigenous communities from the lowlands. Vice President Álvaro García Linera has labeled groups that oppose the development agenda and the extractive industries “environmental fundamentalists,” and Morales has accused these movements of obstructing the government’s “process of change.” Although the government has indeed maintained widespread popularity thanks to economic growth, Morales’ leadership role in the international community in terms of climate change, admirable achievements in poverty and inequality reduction, improvements in access to services like health and education, and promotion of indigenous and cultural rights (for the first time in history indigenous rights are enshrined in the Constitution), it will be interesting to see how the relationship between the government and these indigenous and environmental groups unfolds during Morales’ next term. As Natalie Alem puts it, “the challenge is to live in a Plurinational State, which in turn exists inside a globalized and capitalist world.”

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