Latin America

What you need to know about the upcoming elections in Bolivia

Bolivians will vote for president Sunday and can decide the fate of the project for the transformation of the country

President of Bolivia Evo Morales is seeking a fourth term in office and is the front-runner, according to recent polls / Mauricio Valenzuela/AFP

Bolivia’s 6.9 million voters will have the opportunity to go to the polls on Sunday, October 20, to vote for the next president of the country and for their legislators. In the case of the presidential elections, if no one candidate wins a simple majority, the run-off will be held on December 15. 

The elections in Bolivia have been the subject of much debate within the Andean country and across Latin America and the Caribbean, as the future of the continuation of the project of transformation is at stake.

For the past 14 years, Bolivia has been governed by the party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) led by President Evo Morales, the country’s first Indigenous president, and Vice President Álvaro García Linera. The duo has been boldly taking measures to fundamentally transform Bolivia in order to serve its people and protect its sovereignty.

While the surrounding countries in Latin America have been plunged into chaos under the leadership of neo-fascist leaders imposing neoliberal economics and uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources, Bolivia has remained remarkably stable, registering 4% annual economic growth since 2006 and a significant reduction of poverty and extreme poverty.

Now for a fourth time, Bolivians will choose whether to continue on the path that has been forged by MAS under Morales and García Linera or to go with the opposition, whose central promise is that they are not MAS.

In this explainer, we will take a deeper look at what is at stake in these elections, who the candidates are, and more.

1. Who are the presidential candidates? 

As previously mentioned, Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera are the candidates for the ticket of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and are seeking a fourth term in office. While Article 168 of the Bolivian Constitution originally allowed for only two consecutive terms as president, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled in 2013 that he could seek a third term, as the Constitution was only modified after he began his first term. While the constitutional referendum to amend Article 168 to allow for three consecutive terms failed in 2016, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled in 2017 that the duo had a right to try for a fourth term. 

According to different pollsters (Viaciencia, Ciesmori, and Ipsos Bolivia), Morales and García Linera are predicted to receive around 36-40% of the votes. If they receive 50% or more of the votes, or 40% as long as they are ten percentage points ahead of the second most voted candidate, they would win in the first round. If not, they would face off against the second place candidate, predicted to be a difficult contest as this candidate will likely be able to unite the fractured opposition.

The strongest candidate from the Bolivian opposition is former president Carlos Mesa, who is running on the ticket of a center-right political coalition called Citizen Community (CC). He is some 10 points behind the MAS ticket in terms of voter intention, polling around 22-28%. Mesa’s driving campaign point is that he is the only viable opposition to Morales and vows to recover and restructure Bolivian democratic and political institutions which he believes have been corrupted or tarnished during Morales’ rule. He has also mentioned the importance of re-establishing economic and political relationships with the United States.

Mesa served as president from 2003-2005 during one of the most tumultuous times in recent history in Bolivia. He was serving as vice president to Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, elected in 2002, when their government drew up a plan to sell Bolivian gas at an extremely cheap rate to the United States where it would be sold for an exponentially higher price.

The plan was met with a mass uprising known as the “Gas War” wherein people from across broad sections of Bolivian society joined to denounce the plan and call for the nationalization and industrialization of gas in Bolivia so profits would directly benefit the Bolivian people through development projects and social policies and programs. During the “gas war,” police committed a massacre on October 11, 2003 in the Indigenous city El Alto and killed more than 80 people and injured hundreds. Following the massacre, Losada was forced to resign due to political pressure and Mesa took over as president, but he too was eventually driven out after mass protests. 

Óscar Ortiz follows Mesa with 8-10% of the voter intention and is from the alliance Bolivia Says No (BDN), an alliance that emerged in 2016 to lead the ‘No’ campaign against the constitutional referendum. This alliance represents the far-right wing tendency of the province of Santa Cruz, which has been the central opposition territory since Morales came to power. Ortiz has been unable to garner national support behind his candidacy, and while many sectors of the opposition have pressured him to renounce in order to have a unified opposition candidate, he has refused.

In fourth place, is doctor and Evangelical pastor Chi Hyun Chung for the Democratic Christian Party (PDC), followed by Féliz Patzi, current governor of La Paz from the Third System Movement (MTS); former vice president Victor Hugo Cárdenas, from the Civic Unity Solidarity; Virgilio Lema of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement; Israel Franklin Rodríguez of the Front for Victory; and Ruth Nina, the only female candidate, from the National Bolivian Action.

2. What is at stake in these elections? What has the project of MAS meant for Bolivia?

In the 14 years of rule under Evo Morales, Bolivia has seen tremendous economic change and progress. The steady and consistent economic growth in Bolivia since 2006 has had direct impacts on the socio-economic conditions in the country. From 2000 to 2012, the poverty rate dropped 32.2% in the country, which was praised by the United Nations as the highest rate of poverty reduction in the region. This was accompanied by an increase in the employment rate, salary and a 20% increase in the minimum wage.

What can this economic growth and success be attributed to? The center-piece of the MAS’ economic program has been the nationalization, industrialization, and salvaging of state companies, using these profits to sponsor social programs and build vital infrastructure.

The nationalization of the oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) on May 1, 2006 was the fulfillment of a long standing demand of people’s mobilizations and movements in the country, and was one of the early actions taken by the government of Evo Morales. The move not only allowed the state to benefit from the development, extraction, and commercialization of gas and petroleum in the country, but it also was a firm political stance in protection of Bolivia’s sovereignty and natural resource wealth.

Following the oil and gas nationalization, the Morales administration worked to strengthen and recover state mining companies, the state telecommunications company ENTEL, the National Electricity Company (ENDE), the Airport Service of Bolivia (SABSA), and other state companies. These policies aimed to strengthen national industries and services and generate income for the state.

A large number of social programs that were key in pulling people out of extreme poverty, for example, was made possible through the nationalization measures. These include the Renta Dignidad program, which grants a dignified monthly salary to people over the age of 60; the Juana Azurduy program, which gives economic support and high quality health care to pregnant women and their young children; and the Juancito Pinto program for young school kids to help pay for their school supplies. The Cuban literacy program “Yes I can” which was implemented in Bolivia also has had tremendous success and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared in 2016 that the country was free of illiteracy.

However, Bolivia, like many other emerging economies has based its essential economic development on the extraction and industrialization of natural resources. This and the expansion of the agroindustrial sector are some of the key critiques of the MAS rule from critical left sectors and will have to be something that Morales will have to face should he win the elections, because he himself has pointed out that unrestrained extractivism is threatening humanity’s existence on the earth. 

3. What is the importance of these elections in the region?

Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, in a moment commonly referred to as the “progressive cycle in Latin America,” where there was a collective regional response to the repressive, neoliberal decade of the 1990s, expressed in the growth of grassroots movements and electoral success of leftist and progressive candidates.

In Brazil, there was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez had been elected in 1999 and the Bolivarian Revolution was well underway. In Argentina, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were reviving progressive peronism, while in Ecuador Rafael Correa was undertaking the Citizen Revolution. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was elected, and in Haiti, sometime before, Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been the first democratically elected president (though he was overthrown in 2004 by a military coup).

While each of these projects was distinct in terms of radical structural changes to the political and economic system, together they represented a moment of hope and transformation in the continent, which had been long subject to the yoke of US imperialism and military dictatorships. 

Under the direction of Hugo Chávez, a number of initiatives to foster regional integration and cooperation in economic and political levels were created such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and others.

The “progressive cycle” thus posed an obvious obstacle to US hegemony in the region and immediately became the subject of a series of well-planned attacks to put an end to the cycle. The military coup d’état in Haiti in 2004, the coup in Honduras in 2009, the parliamentary coup in Paraguay in 2012, the electoral victory of Mauricio Macri of the Cambiemos alliance in Argentina, the parliamentary coup in Brazil in 2016, and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 were all indicators that the progressive cycle was on the outs.

However throughout this period, Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia persisted and continued to challenge the neoliberal, imperialist onslaught and continued to forge regional projects to foster solidarity, cooperation, and sovereignty. The upcoming elections in Argentina are likely to deliver a victory to the progressive alliance Frente de Todos led by Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Edition: Aline Scátola