Bolivia's Easter Elections
Sunday two weeks from now will bring more to Bolivia than Easter (and at my house a visit from the Easter Bunny). It will bring, yet another round of national elections. Just four months after the December vote that swept President Evo Morales solidly into a second term, Bolivians are headed back to the ballot box, this time to select the nation's governors and mayors.
While none of the races on the April 4th ballot offer up as much drama as some of the more recent votes – for President, for a new constitution, etc. – the vote represents another contest between Morales and his adversaries, and it will define much about the shape of Morales' dominance over Bolivian politics for the next five years.
The following report was prepared by Democracy Center staff members Jessica Aguirre, Aldo Orellana, and myself.
Bolivia's Easter Elections
Once upon a time the dance between Bolivia's ruling parties and the opposition was much like it is elsewhere in the world. The parties in power controlled the national government and used it to do their will (and in the case of Bolivia a good deal of graft as well). The opposition was focused at the national level, in the Congress. It's primary objective was to make the ruling parties look bad and try to position themselves to win the next national vote. For decades this formula produced a game of political musical chairs in which three national parties – the MNR, MIR, and ADN – rotated the presidency, all with an ideological consistent embrace of Washington Consensus economic policies.
The 2005 vote changed all that for three reasons. One was the historic election of Evo Morales and MAS, a candidate and party who were never a part of that happy tripod of old parties. The second was the virtual collapse of those parties (today only the MNR really exists, but in such an anemic state that "exist" is a generous word). The third was that, for the first time, Bolivia's nine departmental governors were elected directly instead of being appointed by the President, as they had always been.
The Governors Become the Opposition
When those three ingredients were mixed into a new Bolivian political soup the result was a big change in the way political power worked in the country. A national opposition to Morales became virtually non-existent. Instead the voice of opposition shifted to a handful of governors in the nation's eastern departments. They challenged Morales on the constitutional reform process, helped lead mass protests in the streets, and threatened mild forms of succession.
For a while that worked and the Morales presidency seemed stymied. Then three important elections in a row turned even the governors into a marginal force. In an August 2008 vote, Bolivians confirmed Morales' mandate but tossed out two of the leading opposition governors, in La Paz and Cochabamba. Then the MAS constitution was swept into effect by voters in January 2009, followed by Morales' landslide reelection last December.
So, what does it look like going into the April 4th vote?
Currently MAS controls five governorships, in Potosi, Oruro, La Paz, Cochabamba, and Pando. The latter three are departments where the MAS candidates lost in 2005 but where Morales was able to appoint successors to the three governors – two ousted in the 2008 vote and another currently in jail.
This time around, MAS aims to hold onto those and also expand its reach. According to polls MAS is poised to win the governorships in five departments. It also has a clear strategy for doing that, by reaching out beyond the traditional MAS base and recruiting candidates that, in 2005, would not have seemed like likely MAS faces.
The Races to Watch
In five of the departments the results are a virtual certainty, based on current polling, and the campaigns not especially interesting. In Cochabamba, La Paz, Oruro and Potosi MAS is expected to lock up four governorships in a cakewalk. In Chuquisaca, Sabina Cuellar, an indigenous woman who was elected to her first term after breaking with MAS, is expected to be a win for the opposition.
Here then are the four governor contests worth watching April 4th:
Santa Cruz: MAS Makes a Challenge in the Opposition Heartland
Ruben Costas is a Santa Cruz staple. He has been governor of the most anti-Morales department in the country for five years (Costas, like most every other returning politician on the ballot resigned his office three months ago as is required under Bolivian law, but is still, for political purposes, the incumbent) Recent polls indicate make him a certain favorite to win another term, registering a lopsided 58 percent of voter support in the department.
Nevertheless, MAS has decided to give Costas a spirited challenge, in the candidacy of Jerjes Justiniano, a well-known activist who gained notoriety during the most heated of the Santa Cruz conflicts by calling for conciliation between the autonomist movement and supporters of the central government in 2005. When a recent poll showed the MAS candidate with just 22% voter support he optimistically noted, “I began at zero and now I have more than 20 percent." But most observers consider the chances of a MAS victory in Santa Cruz as being roughly that of the mountaintop Jesus in Cochabamba strolling down to Burger King for lunch.
Beni: MAS Pins Its Political Hopes on a Pin-Up
In another department that had previously been a hotbed of opposition to Morales, MAS is trying to pull a political rabbit out of a hat with the candidacy of 26-year old candidate Jessica Jordan, the former Miss Bolivia (pictured above). While the former beauty queen is definitely drawing more media attention than any other candidate on the April ballot in Bolivia, polls show her running with just 25 percent voter support, leading some to question the wisdom of the MAS nomination. The candidacy has, however, attracted the strong interest of Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera (a known aficionado of beauty pageants) who pledged recently that if Jordan wins, he and Morales will become “foot soldiers” to fulfill her campaign promises.
Pando: MAS Seems Positioned to Win in an Opposition Bastion
A year and a half ago the department of Pando drew word attention when a band of MAS opponents attacked a group of Morales supporters in a bloody attack that left more than a dozen dead. The last governor elected in the region was arrested and jailed on charges of having planned the attack. Now MAS seems poised to win the governorship outright with the candidacy of the former mayor of the department's only city, Cobija. The race is close, to be certain, but recent polls show the MAS candidate with a slim 41% to 35% lead.
Tarija: An anti-MAS Incumbent in a Toss-up
Among the opposition governors, Tarija's Mario Cossio, the former head of the lower house of Congress, has usually tried to position himself as the moderate voice among them. But MAS is fielding a very strong challenge to Cossio with a popular former university rector, Carlos Cabrera. Polls show the race currently tied.
What Does it All Mean?
Regardless of the final MAS/Opposition split among the governorships, what is certain is that the opposition will be in a far, far weaker position then after the 2005 elections that thrust the governors into the leading role. There will be fewer opposition governors and those that remain will have political bases that are much less secure. Nor will there be any genuinely effective opposition to MAS and Morales at the national level. His December opponent, former Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa, is now living in Miami to escape prosecution on corruption charges (which he claims are a political ploy by MAS).
With a strong majority in Congress, a weakened opposition among the Governors, and a MAS appointed judiciary, there are few obstacles in the way of Morales doing what he chooses in the foreseeable future.
To be clear, Morales and MAS are in such a dominant political position because the Bolivian people have willed it, in election after election for four years running. However, there are also many in Bolivia who worry that unchecked power is a threat to democracy and an invitation to authoritarian tendencies. And it is true that governments tend not to operate as honestly or as effectively as they should if they are not held in check by an opposition with real teeth. Nevertheless, no politician seems poised to offer MAS such an opposition because to do so would require winning a part of MAS' rock-solid-for-now base among the rural and the poor.
MAS supporters argue that its accountability comes from within, from the social movements that form its central base. But how that accountability from within actually happens in concrete ways is still unclear.
MAS has succeeded in becoming what is known in political terms as a "big tent", a tent so big that it includes not only MAS' core original base but a beauty queen and long-time functionaries of the old parties. The thing to watch now is how a base so broad will hold together. The thing to watch after the Easter eggs have all been eaten is whether the one called MAS begins to show cracks in its formidable shell.