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Luis Arce | The socialist successor

Last Sunday’s landslide victory for Luis Alberto (Lucho) Arce in the Bolivian presidential election is, arguably, a repudiation of the policies of the military-installed right-wing government that was formed after the disputed October 2019 election. Mr. Arce, a socialist and the long-time former Finance Minister, polled more than the combined vote share of his two nearest contenders, and thus eliminated a run-off. His Movement for Socialism (MAS) party obtained a comfortable parliamentary majority. The emphatic victory ends the political instability of nearly 11 months, after an unelected and little known evangelical senator Jeanine Anez assumed charge as the transitional leader last November. The elections were postponed twice, citing the COVID-19 emergency, causing fury among MAS supporters.

The recent verdict is simultaneously a resounding endorsement of Evonomics — the economic policies pursued under the former President of 14 years and the first indigenous occupant of the office, Evo Morales. They entailed the partial nationalisation of Bolivia’s extractive industries and revenue generation during the commodities boom, enabling the social redistribution programmes that lifted millions out of poverty.

The latest results have sparked media speculation that the man behind the throne in La Paz would be Mr. Morales, Mr. Arce’s mentor and former boss, who is to return from exile in Argentina. But there are enough indications already that while the 57-year old protégé intends to build on the Bolivian model to revive the sputtering economy, Mr. Morales would play no direct role in the government.

Mr. Arce’s plans include the substitution of the country’s import dependency with industrialisation on one hand, and securing international debt relief and levying a wealth tax on the other to raise revenues to continue MAS’s poverty alleviation initiatives.

Low-profile moderate

The President-elect, given his reputation as a low-profile moderate within the party, is perhaps best-placed to navigate the country’s recent tumultuous political divisions. Since the November 2019 ouster of Mr. Morales, the country has been rocked by violent confrontations between the security forces and MAS loyalists. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has dubbed the killings of protesters as a massacre and called for an international investigation.

Born in La Paz on September 28, 1963, Mr. Arce grew up in a middle class family. He graduated from the University of Warwick, England, in 1997 with a masters in economics. Mr. Arce spent a large part of his career as a public official at the Central Bank of Bolivia.

In 2006, Mr. Morales, who came to power riding the pink wave that was sweeping through South America, appointed Mr. Arce as the Minister of Economics and Public Finance. Ever since, he remained a close aide of Mr. Morales. He oversaw the rapid expansion of the economy as well as the public spending programmes, which helped MAS build a strong connect with the country's poor.

Syncretic traditions

Interim President Anez had rolled back many of Mr. Morales’s policies. Her display of the Bible at public appearances, in a demonstration of her Catholic identity, downplayed Bolivia’s syncretic traditions of respect for diverse racial symbols at a time when social relations have been strained.

Underscoring the overall direction of his government and the urgent need for national reconciliation, the President-elect promised in a speech following his victory to establish a unity government, to effect change without hate and to learn from MAS’s past mistakes.

The latter remark was possibly an oblique reference, among others, to the controversial and blatantly undemocratic judicial reversal of the 2016 referendum verdict, wherein the people opposed changes to the Constitution that would have authorised Mr. Morales to run for a fourth presidential term.

The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has placed the country as the third highest in terms of per capita rate of deaths, is the other big challenge facing the next government. Mr. Arce has earned a mandate for the policies he crafted in the past. Now the challenge is to live up to the expectations of the voters in the midst of the unprecedented public health emergency.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 9:23:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/luis-arce-the-socialist-successor/article32937129.ece

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