Bolivia’s (re)turn to the left: The significance of Luis Arce’s electoral victory

Bolivia’s (re)turn to the left: The significance of Luis Arce’s electoral victory

Candidate Luis Arce of Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) appears to have claimed an impressive victory of over 54% in the 18th October general election. Arce claimed around 24% more votes than his next closest rival, the centre-left Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana (CC). His victory represents a political U-turn for Bolivia, a vote to return to socialism and reject the centre-right politics of interim president Jeanine Áñez. Taking into account Arce’s significant victory and close relationship with controversial former Bolivian president Evo Morales, what can we expect from Bolivia and the President-Elect going forward?

Results at the time of writing indicate a clear and resounding victory for Luis Arce of MAS, the party of controversial former President Evo Morales. Morales was encouraged to leave power following protests in the aftermath of the 2019 general election after reporting emerged from the Organization of American States (OAS) about electoral irregularities. This led to Jeanine Áñez of centre-right Movimiento Demócrata Social (MDS) assuming power as interim president, with new elections initially planned for 3 May. However, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the election to 18 October. 

Though all the votes have yet to be counted, this election appears as though it will not generate the disputes and unrest that the 2019 general election did. Both President Áñez and Luis Arce’s main electoral rival, Carlos Mesa, have recognised the results; moreover, unlike in 2019, international observers have yet to highlight electoral irregularities. With this in mind, we can expect President-Elect Arce to take up office without any serious controversy. Though there have been demonstrations outside several Departmental Electoral Tribunals rejecting the results, it is highly likely that, as the results are finalized and international observers confirm the presence of fair conduct in the election, this unrest will subside. 

With a confident electoral win, what can we expect President-Elect Arce and MAS to do in the coming months and years?

Economic Policy

In the short term Arce is likely to focus his attention on the economic damage caused to Bolivia, already one of the poorest countries in Latin America, by the COVID-19 pandemic. The gravity of the situation facing the country is seen in the fact that Bolivia’s GDP contracted by 11.1% in the first six months of 2020 owing to the pandemic, one of the worst downturns in Bolivian history. President-Elect Arce himself acknowledged the crisis, stating that it was ‘the first time that we are seeing such fragile, such serious indicators’.

Questioned about the possibility of devaluing the Boliviano against the dollar, Arce expressed his desire to avoid devaluation at all costs through the application of measures to promote industrialization and import substitution. Indications of the economic policy Arce is likely to follow to rectify Bolivia’s economic difficulties have also been provided by Omar Yujra, one of Arce’s economic advisers, who stated that his government will introduce a new tax on large fortunes and aim to not have to pay the country’s external debt for two years. With the savings and revenue accrued through these policies, the government will aim to alleviate growing levels of unemployment through investment in manufacturing, agriculture and internal tourism. According to Yujra, Arce’s government will have a ‘neo-protectionist’ focus.

In the longer term, it is very likely that we will see parallels between the Arce administration’s economic policy and that of Evo Morales’ time in office. This is because, besides being from the same party, Arce served as Evo Morales’ Minister of Economy and Public Finance throughout his tenure from 2006 to 2019. It is likely that Arce’s economic policy will continue to focus on extractive primary sectors like mining, forestry and agriculture which make up the lion’s share of the country’s economy; at the same time, efforts to diversify the country’s economy are likely to occur in the face of declining petroleum gas prices (a major Bolivian export) and growing demand for employment.

The Evo Question

One political issue which overshadowed Arce’s political campaign and which remains significant for understanding the policies he may aim for is the question of what influence former President Evo Morales might have on his government. One of the slogans employed by Carlos Mesa during the campaigning was ‘Arce is Morales’, aiming to cast doubt on his rival’s policy independence and link Arce to the various allegations which have been made against Morales. In response to this, Arce has stated that his government would welcome the assistance of Morales, but that Morales would not necessarily occupy a position in the government, which he asserted would be his government. 

An effort by Arce to distance himself and his government from Evo Morales has the potential to broaden his government’s appeal, particularly among Bolivia’s middle class who were alienated by Morales’ attempts to amend the constitution to run for a fourth term and allegations of corruption. In a similar way, a decision by Arce to distance himself from the more radical rhetoric of Morales’ latter period in office would likely prove beneficial in overcoming the political polarization which developed after the 2019 electoral crisis; overcoming such partisanship and working with the Bolivian opposition is likely to be invaluable for an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic turmoil it has caused. 

Conclusions

Arce’s strong showing at the ballot box provides him and MAS with a good degree of legitimacy, which will be essential for confronting the economic and health crises Bolivia is facing. As architect of Bolivia’s growth under Morales, it’s likely we will see economic improvement under Arce with a focus on agriculture and industry, owing to his experience. The current unprecedented situation is also likely to spur attempts at economic reform. Arce is likely to distance himself from Evo Morales’ more radical rhetoric and policies, which should also bolster his popularity and provide the opportunity for Bolivia to move on from its recent unrest.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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