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Bolivia’s Sunday Presidential Elections

Bolivia’s Sunday Presidential Elections: Blindly into the Breach


• If Bolivia manages to peacefully ride out its convoluted electoral process, stability is far from being guaranteed, even in the event of an Evo Morales victory.

• Morales appears increasingly likely to win by a significant margin on December 18, probably by enough of a spread to effectively guarantee that Congress will confirm him in the runoff.

• Simply winning the presidency will not end the challenges for Evo however, as he will likely be forced onto a pragmatic path that will be deeply unpopular with his basic constituency.

• In the event that Evo is seen as reneging, poor and indigenous Bolivians won’t hesitate for very long before taking to the streets and seek to depose him as they have done with several of his predecessors, an event also witnessed in neighboring Ecuador and Argentina.

With only a few days to go until Bolivia’s presidential ballot, Evo Morales holds a substantial lead of around 5% over the conservative candidate Jorge Quiroga, according to polls released on December 13. Morales has been extending his lead for several weeks now, and the decline of another right-center candidate – Samuel Doria Medina – has not noticeably benefited Quiroga, suggesting the solidity of Evo’s present strength. Since all parties wish to avoid post-election strife, it seems increasingly likely that in the certain congressional runoff (see COHA’s December 7 press release for more information on the process) Morales will wind up in the presidency. As the election nears, Morales has been attempting to broaden his appeal, both moderating his rhetoric by seeking to project a commitment to stability. Importantly, this effort may be succeeding: on December 13 the military explicitly stated that the armed forces would serve loyally under Evo, if he is installed as president.

A Difficult Outlook
Winning the presidency, however, may be only one of Morales’ tasks. The hard fact is that Morales is likely to be far more pragmatic than his base constituency anticipates. It is quite conceivable that the demands of the street will quickly surpass what President Evo can deliver, leading to a situation not unlike that of Lucio Gutíerrez – Ecuador’s first president with militant indigenous support – whose government was toppled by popular demonstrations by his ex-partisans who felt they had been spurned.

Morales’ likely pursuit of moderation will arise from both his personal survival instincts and institutional constraints. Evo has somewhat of a reputation as a political opportunist, demonstrated by his success in turning the authentic civic groundswell of the 2003 street demonstrations into a powerful political campaign vehicle which advanced his own profile. But while he was able to harness the energy of a politically-awakened population, he certainly does not control it. Those former supporters have perhaps unrealistically high hopes for the government which Morales may lead, and there is a good probability that he will eventually dash their hopes, with ominous ramifications.

Evo has cultivated high expectations with both poor cholos and indigenous, basing his campaign not only on his own Aymara blood (a unique phenomenon in Bolivia’s stormy history) but also on strident rhetoric stressing the legalization of coca leaf production and the nationalization of the gas industry. Such planks are built of political necessity and reflect a close reading of the land. Morales’ oldest and most loyal constituency is based on the coca growers of the Chapare region; and there is currently widespread discontent over the highly profitable operation of foreign gas corporations in the country – notably Petrobrás, Repsol and British Gas – among Bolivians who cannot fathom why they have yet to see any benefits from this resource, just as they failed to benefit from any other export commodity in their country’s colonial and post-colonial past.

An Eye on the Coca
On the subject of coca leaf production, Morales has insisted that once in office he would not backtrack on his promises of wholesale coca legalization. While that message may resonate on the campaign trail, it is fraught with problems. Washington will bitterly oppose any such veering from a course which it set decades ago, and could use efforts to legalize coca production as a justification for the termination of aid. Such an action on Washington’s part could replicate the ill-fated experiences of Colombian President Ernesto Samper, whose connection to drug activity in his country was enough to have Colombia decertified for that year, funneling all U.S. aid to the Colombian military and police, with no discretionary funds being placed in the hands of the president.

With the massive aid dollars of a possible Millennium Challenge Account being dangled before him, there will be both a carrot and a stick to encourage Evo to perhaps be more tractable on the coca topic. That money is no small enticement either: Bolivia currently receives $95 million in support through USAID, while Honduras – which fawningly courted Washington by backing the Iraq war – is awarded $215 million through its Millennium Challenge Account. Washington clearly expects servility in exchange for its munificence, and if Evo refuses to play ball there is every reason to expect that the spigot will be shut off.

It’s About the Gas, Stupid
Morales’ repeated promises to nationalize the natural gas industry have drawn the most attention from international observers, due to the huge reserves to be found in the eastern half of the country. Brazil’s Luis Inácio Lula da Silva – whose country is the largest importer of Bolivian gas through a pipeline that is reportedly capable of shipping around 30 million cubic meters per day – was concerned enough with guaranteeing this supply that he arranged a meeting with Morales to discuss the future of Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobrás’ investment in Bolivia. Morales assured Lula that the company’s assets were safe, suggesting that the former’s nationalization proposals may lack clear direction and could involve important exceptions and concessions.

Indeed, any attempt to modify the management of the gas industry will run into both the opposition of foreign companies as well as logistical difficulties, and Evo may find himself caught between his campaign pledges and the need for practicality that may end up being less radical in scope than previously promised to the electorate.

Is Newer Better?
A Morales government could also falter with other domestic issues. The MAS as a national political organization has grown tremendously in recent weeks, but prior to these elections the party had little actual experience governing. This inexperience factor could very well lead to administrative problems on both a national and local level, and minor irritations can quickly spawn spreading discontent. Furthermore, the macroeconomic strategy that Evo might pursue will be complicated by the potential elimination of U.S. aid if there is any trifling with existing drug control policies. The MAS’ program already includes mention of a state austerity program, which, while not fundamentally opposed to the party’s social agenda, might transform public policy under Morales into something that will eventually provoke outrage if it is seen by his supporters as a concession to the U.S. and the international lending agencies.

The Unraveling
It now appears likely that Evo will obtain a majority of the votes on Sunday, probably ensuring his confirmation by Congress later in January. Washington, despite its professed concerns, will have no justification to intervene after an OAS monitored election, and would be far better off attempting to court Morales and promote a Lula-like quasi-economic orthodoxy than by inviting the international and regional outrage which an intervention would arouse. Rather than link Morales’ fate to that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, U.S. policy makers should try to steer the popular sense of outrage against the status quo, which they tirelessly sponsor and which is the centerpiece of current U.S. policy towards the region.

The real conflict is likely to arise when the mobilized Bolivian poor, who now have a better understanding of the political power they hold, realize that Evo is not fulfilling what he assured his indio audiences were heart-felt pledges, and is turning back on the radical campaign promises that he has made. Arguably, it is the demonstrators on the street who today represent the most powerful political force in Bolivia, and their demands are immediate, ardent, and most importantly, relatively non-partisan. Therefore there is no reason to believe that a failed Morales presidency will be treated any more gently than were his bumbling predecessors. The real concern must be the long-term ramifications for Bolivian democracy of such perceived betrayal.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Michael Lettieri

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