Bolivia's President Evo Morales Seeks An Unprecedented Fourth Term

The race for Bolivia’s presidency has begun and Evo Morales, has a good chance of winning,  if voters forgive him for the term limits controversy. Linda Farthing discusses the situation in Bolivia

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, is currently running for a fourth presidential term. Even though the election won’t take place until October 20th, the campaign is in full swing. Morales appears to be the leading candidate in the polls and the opposition is divided between two conservative candidates. Many, both on the left and on the right of Morales, argue that the election, though, is tainted because Morales managed to bypass Bolivia’s term limits. Bolivia’s Constitution of 2009 had specified that presidents could only serve for two consecutive terms. Since Morales was first elected in 2006 prior to the new constitution, the term limit would have meant that 2019 was going to be his last year in office. In February of 2016, Morales tried to have the constitution reformed via referendum, but the referendum narrowly failed. Then in December of 2017, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that term limits violate basic political rights and eliminated them, allowing Morales to run for a fourth term this year.

Joining me now to discuss Bolivia’s presidential race is Linda Farthing. She’s a journalist and researcher who has co-authored three books on Bolivia. She has also written for The Guardian, The Nation, Al Jazeera, and MS. Magazine. Thanks for joining us today, Linda.

LINDA FARTHING: Thanks for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: Let’s start with the controversy surrounding Evo Morales’s overcoming of the term limits. As I said, it seems that Bolivians who are critical of Morales from both the left and the ride have denounced him for getting rid of them. But, he narrowly lost on this issue in the 2016 referendum, so how is this reelection now being perceived more generally? As something illegitimate, or is there a general acceptance now for him to run for a fourth term of president?

LINDA FARTHING: Well, unfortunately, Bolivia is a country that has had one of the largest numbers of coup d’etat in its history anywhere in the world. The expectation that the president will be legally elected every election is not very strong, I would say. People are disturbed by the – a lot of people are disturbed by the violation of the constitution and the lack of respect for the referendum, but I think a lot of people are reconciled to it. They’re resigned to it, I think is actually the better word.

GREG WILPERT: Now, according to the most recent polls, Morales, as I mentioned, is significantly ahead of his rivals, but he still does not have an absolute majority in the polls to avoid a runoff vote that would take place later in the year. Now, what is your sense of where he stands in terms of being reelected, and what are the main issues on which he is running?

LINDA FARTHING: I think that he will most likely be reelected. I mean there’s always surprises in elections. There’s always last minute things that can happen that can change that, but I think that it’s very probable he will be reelected. The opposition is not strong and not very well organized. It’s very divided. So he has the MAS, the party that he leads, has really established itself as a pretty hegemonic force in Bolivia. I’m pretty sure that they should have no problem winning the election.

GREG WILPERT: What are the issues that he’s campaigning on?

LINDA FARTHING: Well, I think that we’ve seen an interesting shift during the period of time that Morales has been in office from an emphasis on a process of change and a profound changing of Bolivian society. As the Morales government has increasingly had to negotiate with powerful elites, that agenda has been modified over time. Now, the strongest message the MAS is putting out is about how it has brought stability to the country and how the economy continues to be one of the strongest in the region.

GREG WILPERT: Yes. It seems that the economic growth has been quite significant, and actually, that’s something that during the independence celebrations, apparently, Alvaro Garcia Linero pointed out. But, he also seemed to show some self-criticism. Can you talk about that? That is, what the government sees now as being some of the issues that need to be corrected, and what the critics are also saying in terms of what needs to be corrected?

LINDA FARTHING: Well, I think that the Government is increasingly recognizing … there has been a strong commitment to try and diversify the economy and industrialize Bolivia. Bolivia is the classic mono-producer, poor, low-income country that has basically gone from one commodity boom to another during its history, for silver, then tin, then arguably coca, and now more recently petroleum to, to a lesser degree, natural gas. There has been an attempt to do value-added to the products. Bolivia is still very strongly a mining country, but that has not really yielded the results that were hoped for. There’s a strong pressure to create jobs and a lot of the industrialization processes actually require highly-skilled technicians rather than providing a lot of labor or jobs for people.

GREG WILPERT: Now, what about the opposition? I mean you briefly mentioned that they’re disorganized, but who are the main opposition candidates and who do they represent in terms of sectors of Bolivian society?

LINDA FARTHING: Well, the principle opposition candidate I think is still very much Carlos Mesa, who is a former president and vice president of Bolivia, an intellectual and a journalist who had his own television show for many years. He is the front runner against Morales, as far as I’m aware. But, he has a very strong base of support among the middle class and middle-class professionals, but the broader base of support he doesn’t have. He was forced out of office in an uprising in 2005 and he’s not seen as a particularly strong candidate. He was very reluctant to become a presidential candidate. He really resisted it, so he’s not considered, generally considered to be a very strong or realistic candidate. He also represents the very small traditional ruling elite of the country, the sort of 5%, 8% of the country of Bolivia who are of European origin.

GREG WILPERT: Well, the other issue, though, I’m wondering is what is the opposition saying about Morales? What are they using as arguments? One other thing is, of course, that Bolivia has been relatively successful, as you mentioned. There’s been lots of economic growth. The president and the vice president pointed out that poverty has been reduced tremendously. Extreme poverty has been reduced something like from over 40% to less than 15%. With that kind of a track record, I would imagine it’d be very difficult to run against Morales, so what are the main arguments that they’re using to try to defeat him?

LINDA FARTHING: A lot of the argument is based on the violation of the constitution and a lack of respect for the referendum that was held in 2016, which Morales narrowly lost. The other argument that is used and has been used consistently is an argument, which, of course, is always very hard to prove, and in fact, is fairly universal in Latin America and elsewhere for that matter, which is the argument, it was just an argument about corruption. The argument is that the Morales government is very corrupt, that it is based on patronage systems, and that as a result, it should be removed.

GREG WILPERT: Well, that’s, of course, something – a very interesting argument to be using considering that these people making these arguments themselves have been accused of that themselves for a long time.

LINDA FARTHING: Right, right. Yeah. That’s for sure. They really don’t have any strong programmatic message. I mean, what the MAS has done over the last 14 years has been, or nearly 14 years, has been so significant that it’s unlikely that there will be very much realistic programmatic change even if another government gets in.

GREG WILPERT: We’re going to have to leave it there for now, but as we get closer to the actual election on October 20th, I hope we’ll come back to you. I was speaking to Linda Farthing, independent journalist and researcher on Bolivia. Thanks again, Linda, for having joined us today.

LINDA FARTHING: Thank you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

Linda Farthing

Linda Farthing is a journalist and researcher who has co-authored three books Bolivia. She has also written for the Guardian, the Nation, Al Jazeera, and Ms. Magazine.