Bolivia’s Evo Morales Barely Wins Reelection in First Round; Opposition Calls Foul and Protests

October 22, 2019

Despite a dramatic drop in poverty and increasing per capita income, incumbent president Evo Morales only barely managed to avoid a run-off election in Sunday's vote against ex-president Carlos Mesa. We spoke with Kathryn Ledebur before the results were final to analyze the close outcome.

Despite a dramatic drop in poverty and increasing per capita income, incumbent president Evo Morales only barely managed to avoid a run-off election in Sunday's vote against ex-president Carlos Mesa. We spoke with Kathryn Ledebur before the results were final to analyze the close outcome.


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Story Transcript

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

The people of Bolivia voted on Sunday and almost returned incumbent President Evo Morales for a fourth consecutive term in office. That is, with 45% of the vote, Morales got a plurality of the vote, but failed to get enough to avoid a runoff election against former President Carlos Mesa who got 38% of the vote according to the initial results. When the electoral authority temporarily stopped publishing the incoming vote count on Monday after initial results of 83% of the votes had been counted, Mesa accused the electoral authority of foul play.

In any case, there’s little doubt that a second round of the presidential election will take place now on December 15th. The election this time around was however also shrouded in another controversy well before voting took place. That is, in late 2017, Bolivia Supreme Court annulled the constitutions term limit provision, which would have prevented Evo Morales from running again this time around. The court’s annulment of the constitutions term limit article came on the heels of a referendum on just this issue, which would have changed the constitution to eliminate term limits, but it failed by a narrow margin in 2016.

Joining me now from Cochabamba, Bolivia to discuss the Bolivian election results is Kathryn Ledebur. She’s Director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba and researcher, activist, and analyst with over two decades of experience in Bolivia. Thanks for joining us again, Katherine.

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: Thanks so much for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So Bolivia’s economy actually seems to be doing quite well under Evo Morales. And as the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently pointed out in a report, per capita GDP actually has increased by 50% since Evo was first elected in 2005. Unemployment is under 5% at the moment and poverty was reduced by 42%. Despite all of this, this is the first time in four presidential elections that Evo Morales did not win the presidential election in the first round. So what happened? Why was the vote so close this time around?

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: Well, I agree that it’s not an economic motivator. It’s not an issue of people feeling like they were worse off than they were before. I think there are a series of things at play. One is a question in the minds of some voters about the legitimacy of the fourth run. Possible perception that perhaps four terms is too many and that it’s time for a change. I think that there were other complex factors that fed into it such as the widespread forest fires, the brush fires, and the Chiquitania, which were devastating and which the opposition did a very good job of blaming on Morales. I think that’s a gross oversimplification. I don’t think his policies impeded it, but it’s more an issue of climate change and slash and burn agriculture. So we’re at a juncture here where the outcome is very uncertain.

It seems like there’ll be a second round; and the outcome of that second round, it’s also uncertain. You have Morales with the majority with less than 10% difference between him and Carlos Mesa, the second contender. But it’s important to know that the final official vote count will be the ones that are important and count and that it’s going to take a while. I would say until tonight or maybe even tomorrow until those official results are published. That’s a very normal amount of time for Bolivian elections, remember that there are voters in very rural areas, some are arriving by boat and all of this will tend to increase Morales’ percentage of the vote. That’s been the trend. But it looks like, as you noted, that that won’t be sufficient to bring him to a first round win.

GREG WILPERT: In the contest between former President Carlos Mesa and incumbent Evo Morales, what have been and will be the main campaign issues now looking forward also for the runoff vote. I mean obviously the forest fire issues certainly will have passed by then. What other issues do you foresee as being the main things on which this vote is going to be conducted?

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: Moss largely ran on a campaign of stability, of effective programs, of their track record. Obviously, that wasn’t enough to convince the majority of voters. We now have a scenario where Mesa has not had a clear platform either except in rejection of Morales and an idea of rolling back partially his policies. I think it’s going to be an interesting time for Bolivian voters to begin to envision what a potential Carlos Mesa government might be like and what that impact would be. And I think voters could go many ways.

The third place candidate–a surprise third place candidate–Chi from the PDC party is a homophobic anti-women’s rights evangelical pastor. He has offered his votes to Mesa on the condition that Mesa “drop the rainbow flag” and move away from his support of LGBTQ and women’s issues. That would be a clearly messy Faustian bargain. But it’s important to note that it’s not as it had been before the Bolivian constitutional change, before Morales’ election, where it was the percentage of parties kicking in. This is going to be a whole new boat and other opportunities for voters. And in these seven weeks between the two elections, a lot can happen. And I would say that the outcome is unpredictable.

GREG WILPERT: I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. That’s an unusually long period actually between the first round and the second round. In most other countries, they’re usually no more than four weeks. Give us a brief idea as to who Carlos Mesa is. We started talking about him, but what do we know about him and what he represents and who he represents? And do you think that he has a chance of uniting the opposition behind him in order to defeat Evo in December?

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: Well, we know a lot about Carlos Mesa. We know who he is, what he does, and what he stands for has shifted dramatically. He’s a historian by profession. He gained prominence as a journalist. He was the head of the PAT network that was closely linked to the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado government. He was viewed as a moderate yet accepted when running as a Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado’s Vice President. And they won that in 2002. That government was wrought with conflict, with violence, and it led to Sanchez de Lozado’s resignation after the death of over 60 protesters in the Gas War; 60 Aymara protesters shot by the security forces. Mesa stepped back from Sanchez de Lozado and assumed the presidency on a no human rights platform.

At that point in time, he had the support of social sectors; he had the support of a block of the working class. But he called a referendum on the hydrocarbons issue. A change in the hydrocarbons law, the nationalization of hydrocarbons all were approved by wide margins, and he did not implement that. It’s very interesting that there’s a great deal of criticism because Morales had a referendum on his reelection that he himself called, which he narrowly lost by two points. And he argued extenuating circumstances and continued to seek means to justify his reelection. At the same time, Mesa didn’t follow the results of his referendum. And so they’re basically in the same boat. So you see Mesa alienate the left, alienate the right, work with the Morales government on the return of the seacoast issue. He’s been quite promiscuous in many senses and his positions have shifted and changed.

So I think you see support for the no Evo Morales vote, support for Mesa as a different kind of candidate. But it’s important to know that Mesa only stayed in power 18 months as President before he resigned under extreme popular pressure. So the question is, does he have a rank and file? He doesn’t have an established party. He doesn’t have an established set of officials or technicians to implement a government. If he does come to power, it will be with a marriage of convenience with other opposition parties. And that doesn’t necessarily make for effective government. I think no matter what happens as we move forward here, the outlook is very, very conflict ridden and complex for Bolivia.

GREG WILPERT: I’m wondering if there’s any degree to which the international situation might be playing a role in the Bolivian elections. And I’m specifically thinking about all of the turmoil and upheaval that is happening at the moment in Argentina, in Chile, and in Ecuador where all these basically conservative governments have taken a hard neo-liberal turn once again. And people are taking to the streets; they’re being violently repressed by the police and in some cases such as in Chile, also by the military. Is that at all perhaps having any kind of effect on what’s going on in Bolivia in terms of the chances of Mesa being returned to office? Especially given that he himself had to leave office under similar circumstances.

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: I think it’s definitely going to have an impact. It’s not clear what impact there will be. I think this first high Mesa vote is a vote for no more Evo Morales, a vote for a leadership rotation. I think this next vote, the situation is very different. And it really points to what Mesa plans to do or how he plans to do it and the impact on the economy. And I think there, we see that any shifts to the right after having a more socially focused government is going to lead to a backlash. And I think if Mesa were to come to power and he were to dramatically change Morales’ policies as he promises to do, there would be that same backlash in Bolivia.

It’s important to note that even when the Morales government in the past has made decisions that weren’t supported by the public, such as an early attempt to remove hydrocarbon subsidies, much as happened in Ecuador the past month, they were very quickly forced to retreat and decided to. It’s not clear if Mesa has that same kind of social barometer or if he has the ability to weather these crises. Generally in Bolivia we have cycles of conflict and it’s seasonal. I assume we will make it through the year-end holidays. I assume then there will be a period of relative peace while people negotiate the local elections in March. And after the Carnival holidays, I assume that there will be a great deal of conflict. Conflict for a moss government, but also conflict for a Mesa government from grassroots sectors. It’s going to be a very, very messy year no matter what happens.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Very interesting. Well, we’ll definitely come back to you once the situation clarifies or develops. But we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Kathryn Ledebur, Director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Thanks again, Kathryn for having joined us today.

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: Thanks so much for having me, Greg.

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