Bolivia: Mas strikes back: wider implications for the region

Bolivia: Mas strikes back: wider implications for the region

In early October, Bolivia’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) won a landslide victory against opponents in the state’s most general recent elections, with presidential candidate Luis Arce clasping victory in the first round. But will this mean a return of Evo Morales, former president and heavyweight in Bolivian politics, who went into self-exile after protests over accusations of fraud in the 2019 elections? Does the case of Bolivia hint at a return to the pink tide of left-wing politicians in Latin America?

Over the past year, Bolivian nationals have gone through a political whirlwind. After a series of irregularities were reported in last year’s elections, where the long-standing incumbent Evo Morales claimed victory, the country went into mass protests and riots, some of which lasted almost a month. Some of this anger had its roots in a Supreme Court decision in 2018 to scrap term limits for the presidency and thus allowing Morales to run for a fourth time, despite voters narrowly rejecting a constitutional amendment to let him run again in a national referendum. With Morales fleeing the country, Jeanine Áñez, a politician of the opposition party, the Democrat Social Movement, became interim president until elections could take place again.

However, October’s vote reflected how some of her transitional administration’s policies as well as her handling of the pandemic, has not been widely received by the Bolivian people. Whilst many saw last year’s events as a move away from the socialist policies enacted by the MAS towards a market-driven economy, it seems that the current socio-economic situation, magnified by the pandemic, has tainted public opinion on both Áñez and her allies, but also what Bolivia without the MAS would look like. On the other hand, the possible return of Morales persisted as a deterrent to undecided voters in trusting the MAS again, an idea which the opposition frequently invoked in their depiction of Arce as Morales. Nevertheless, Arce’s resounding victory, winning over 55% of votes in the first round, can be put down to a number of reasons.

Arce, the right man for the job

First, as finance minister under Morales for over ten years, Arce oversaw a massive reduction in poverty and economic growth through policies such as the nationalisation of oil and gas industries. For this reason, he is seen as the provider of tangible improvements to Bolivia’s socio-economic situation. Second, he still appeals to the indigenous majority of the Bolivian population, which show loyal ties to the MAS party, as well as other traditional Morales supporters from working class backgrounds. However, as a quiet technocrat, Arce has distinguished himself from Morales, stating explicitly on numerous occasions that his victory will not signify a return to politics for the former president, and that he is a very different character. This seems to have calmed worried voters regarding whether Morales will climb back to power, despite Morales reassuring supporters that he will be returning to Bolivian politics. 

Increasingly, many have begun to speculate on Arce’s victory, and how this will re-energise Latin America’s left, known for economic justice policies, which may prove popular in present day where poverty is expected to surge to 37% in the region.

Latin America’s Pink Tide

From the early 2000s, leftist governments began dominating the political sphere in the region, particularly in South America, a phenomenon labelled the “pink tide”. Populist leaders such as Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and Morales in Bolivia promised economic reform and social transformation in the most unequal continent in the world, whilst denouncing the role played by neoliberalism. Some of their policies contributed to a reduction in hunger and poverty in the region, and many of these leaders are recognised for amplifying democratic participation to include the most marginalised communities, such as the indigenous in Bolivia. 

However, over time, most of these “pink” administrations fell out of power and were replaced by centre or right-wing governments. The notable exception here is Venezuela, now under Chavez’s protege and former vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, and viewed widely as a failed state. By 2013, Latin America was no longer benefiting from the high Chinese demand for commodities, and economic advances began to wane, indicating a mismanagement of government finances and unsustainable fiscal and monetary policies. In addition, it became clear that with some of these charismatic leaders, the fundamental democratic principles of many states began to be compromised. 

Social Mundial Forum

Left to right: Fernando Lugo, former president of Paraguay; Evo Morales of Bolivia; Lula da Silva of Brazil; Rafael Correa of Ecuador; Hugo Chavez of Venezuela at the World Social Forum, 2009. 

Is change in the air?

Bolivia’s election result, as well as the wave of recent protests across countries including Ecuador, Colombia and Chile, all of which are governed by right-wing parties, have fuelled the idea that a return of pink tide politics in the region is very likely. Dissatisfaction seems omnipresent: public outrage over police violence and the killings of social leaders in Colombia, last year’s national shutdowns in Ecuador over attempts to remove fuel subsidies, and the demonstrations in Chile over drastic inequality which culminated in an overwhelming vote this October to rewrite the constitution. In Ecuador, which is due to hold its presidential elections in February, leftist candidate and Rafael Correa’s pick, Andrés Arauz, is leading in the polls. Right-wing Martin Vizcarra, president of Peru, has also witnessed a slump in his ratings. However, as Vizcarra and other figures facing unpopularity show, public dissatisfaction and demands for change cannot be put down to solely a desire for leftist politics to return.

Dissatisfaction beyond ideological grounds

As the region most affected by the pandemic, Latin America has proven that no leader is immune to criticism on how they have managed the health emergency. Vizcarra, criticised mainly for lockdown measures that devastated Peru’s economy as well as having one of the world’s highest death tolls, is not alone in this respect. Argentina’s left wing president, Alberto Fernandez, has witnessed protests and criticism over his handling of the virus and the economy. Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, puts the wave of general disgruntlement down to a regional trend to punish incumbents for failing to deliver in tough times. In this way, it is extremely likely that we will continue to see mass protests across Latin America, particularly when pandemic lockdown measures are eased, but these will reflect discontent across the spectrum.

On the other hand, the two leaders that have come out of the pandemic the most unscathed in the region are surprisingly the largest populists. Mexican president, Lopez-Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO, and Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, have not witnessed a slump in their approval ratings on the same scale as almost every other leader in Latin America. Whilst at polar opposites of the political spectrum, both leaders were hesitant to enact immediate lockdown measures, but have nevertheless retained their popularity among their loyal base of supporters and are now facing a lesser degree of economic contraction. Thus, whilst the pandemic, blind to political ideology, has caused public anger towards their leaders, AMLO and Bolsonaro show that elements of both right and left wing populism will very likely remain formidable in Latin American politics as for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, the Maduro regime in Venezuela, seen as the last holdout of the pink tide, serves as both a reminder and a warning to those wishing to look back at the wave of leftist governments with rose-tinted glasses. Venezuela is often employed by right wing politicians to deter voters from the left, invoking a fear that it would inevitably bring about similar economic catastrophe and social chaos. Instead, public discontent is likely to shift towards the direction of pragmatism, rejecting economic inequality whilst remaining wary of leaders promising the same radical change that defined the pink tide.

The vote in Bolivia epitomises this new direction. Whilst the MAS has managed to come back into power, Arce will need to carefully navigate through the detrimental effects of the pandemic on poverty and economic growth. These are very different circumstances to those during his time as finance minister where his nationalisation policies took place within a boom in natural gas prices, which may challenge his support amongst MAS’s traditional supporters. Nevertheless, he must equally prove to the Bolivian people that he is not simply a vessel for Morales to return to power, and that the country’s politics will not be subsumed in a greater regional trend that allows populist leaders to cling onto the peripheries of politics. Voters in Bolivia, along with other states in Latin America, are demanding new change in their politics, one that cannot be simply painted over with a pink brush.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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