Return of the socialists: On the victory of Evo Morales’s party in Bolivia

Following his win in Bolivia, Arce should learn from the successes and mistakes of Morales

October 22, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:12 am IST

Preliminary results of Sunday’s Presidential election in Bolivia point to an emphatic victory for the former President Evo Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party almost a year after he was ousted by protesters and the military. While the official results will not be announced for days, exit polls and independent counts give his hand-picked candidate, Luis Arce 53% of the popular vote against his main rival Carlos Mesa’s 29.5%. Mr. Mesa, who was President between 2003 and 2005, has conceded the election. This is as much a victory for Mr. Morales , Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, as it is for Mr. Arce. Mr. Morales left the country, first for Mexico and then for Argentina, after the Generals asked him to stand down in November 2019. Since then, Jeanine Añez, a right-wing conservative Senator, has been the acting President, rolling back many of Mr. Morales’s policies and going after his supporters. But MAS mobilised its supporters and fought back. Mr. Arce promised voters that if elected, he would carry forward the pro-poor socialist legacy of Mr. Morales, while MAS portrayed Mr. Mesa as a representative of the pre-Morales elites, whose rapid privatisation and pro-market policies had triggered frequent mass protests. The results demonstrate that the voters chose the equity-oriented socialist stability, which MAS offered, over the free-market conservatism of its rivals.

The new leader could learn from the achievements and mistakes of Mr. Morales, credited with turning around South America’s poorest country economically. Under his government, Bolivia saw a drop in extreme poverty, from 33% of the population in 2006 to 15% in 2018. He also stepped up public investments, opened more schools and health clinics, built roads and nationalised the oil and gas industry, all while ensuring that the economy continued to expand. These policies helped MAS build a strong connect with the poor, a base which continued to back the party despite last year’s political turbulence. At the same time, his push to stay in power beyond the term limits set by the Constitution helped the Opposition organise itself. He got the ban lifted by a constitutional court after his bid failed in a referendum. This raised questions about the legitimacy of his candidacy in the October 2019 election, which he won but was accused of fraud, leading to protests and his ouster. Mr. Arce’s biggest challenge would be to continue Mr. Morales’s welfare policies, while keeping the battered economy on track. Moreover, the anti-Socialist and mostly white opposition is now more powerful, after ousting Mr. Morales and having run the interim government for a year with the U.S.’s support. Mr. Arce can keep the galvanised opposition at bay only by continuing MAS’s socio-economic “revolution” to expand its support base in a divided country.

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