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What’s next for Bolivia?

  • Published at 12:02 am November 14th, 2019
Bolivia-protests
Photo: Reuters

Understanding Bolivia after Evo Morales

Evo Morales has left Bolivia on a plane for Mexico, a day after he resigned as president. Morales and his vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, stood down from office on November 10, following a suggestion by the head of the military, Williams Kaliman. Met with jubilation and despair by different sectors of Bolivian society, the resignations were the culmination of weeks of unrest following presidential and parliamentary elections on October 20. Morales initially appeared to have won in the first round, but the whole process was overshadowed by accusations of electoral fraud and the spectre of military intervention. 

Nothing at the moment is black and white. The events represent both a military coup d’état and a moment of mass protest that unseated the government.

For and against Morales

The social base of Morales’ political party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), are the peasant organizations of the Andean highlands altiplano and the semi-tropical valleys of Cochabamba, alongside a group of unions and federations which represent peasants and rural proletarian labourers. They have an organic relationship with the MAS, and as such, will all turn out to vote for and defend it on the streets. 

The opposition to Morales is also comprised of multiple different -- and contradictory -- currents. First, there is a group concerned with the abstract notion of representative democracy, comprised of the urban middle-classes and university students. This is probably the largest opposition group, and is found in all nine departmental capitals. The second are indigenous groups which do not share the developmental agenda of the MAS government, and are in the pathways of extractive or large-scale infrastructure projects. 

Increasingly powerful regional opposition groups are also concerned with the distribution of power and resources within the country. The indigenous opposition to Morales in the city of Potosí can be categorized as part of this group

Coup d’état?

Time accelerated in the period following presidential and parliamentary elections in Bolivia on October 20, with a decade’s worth of political events unfolding in the space of a couple of weeks, reorienting the political terrain.

That Morales and García Linera stood down at the behest of the military is no surprise, and the possibility of a coup became increasingly likely in the days of protests and civic strikes between Election Day and November 10.

But the story of a coup d’état is by no means the whole story -- and the ability of the three opposition groups to construct a multitude of popular forces powerful enough to direct the political currents in this moment has been astounding. In the wake of the election, the city of Santa Cruz was shut down for weeks by a general strike -- the longest in the city’s history. The disorganized masses who congregated and burned down vote counting stations coalesced into a movement strong enough to coordinate and sustain political activity against the MAS government. 

During Morales’s final days in office, they were joined by social groups once supportive of the MAS, including the Bolivian Workers’ Central. In this sense, the resignation of Morales and García Linera follows weeks of massive social protest.

Probably the most remarkable dynamic in this sped-up unfurling of history is the emergence of Luis Fernando Camacho, head of the Pro Santa Cruz Committee, from the backwaters of regional, right-wing politics in Santa Cruz to a political figure on the national scene. The arrival of the evangelical right to Bolivian politics has been a long time coming, but is nothing to celebrate. 

Power vacuum

In the wake of the resignations, both Carlos Mesa, Morales’s main electoral opponent and Camacho demanded new elections without the participation of Morales. The urban support base of the MAS took to the streets in violent protest. 

The preliminary report from the OAS audit into electoral fraud stated that even though there were numerous voting irregularities, it’s highly probable that Morales would have captured the largest share of the vote anyway. Without Morales on the ballot paper in a future election, a large section of the electorate will not be able to vote for their candidate. The resignation of Morales and García Linera has now left a power vacuum. 

Angus McNelly is Lecturer in Latin American Politics/International Development, Queen Mary University of London. A version of this article was first published in The Conversation and has been reprinted under special arrangement.