Bolivia: A Presidential Race with a Foregone Conclusion

President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García are set to handily win the Dec. 6 elections in Bolivia, against a fragmented opposition. In a Gallup International poll published early this month, more than 57 percent of respondents said they would vote for the left-wing Morales. Image(IPS) – President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García are set to handily win the Dec. 6 elections in Bolivia, against a fragmented opposition.

In a Gallup International poll published early this month, more than 57 percent of respondents said they would vote for the left-wing Morales, compared to less than 10 percent each for the two most popular right-leaning candidates, Samuel Doria Medina of the National Unity Front (FUN) and former Cochabamba governor Manfred Reyes Villa of the New Republican Force (NFR).

A total of eight presidential candidates registered last week to run for the 2010-2015 period.

A second term for Morales, who took office in January 2006 after winning 53.7 percent of the vote, would give the Movement to Socialism (MAS) a chance to consolidate what it has called the "re-founding" of the Bolivian state on the basis of greater participation by indigenous people and a strengthening of their rights.

Indigenous people in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, make up a majority of the population – approximately 60 percent of a total of 9.3 million people – but have long suffered discrimination. They were not allowed to vote until 1952, and Morales is the country’s first-ever indigenous president.

The country is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the poor indigenous majority, and the much wealthier eastern and southeastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product. The population of eastern Bolivia tends to be of more Spanish and mestizo (mixed-race) than indigenous descent.

The Morales administration has also distanced itself from the United States, which has historically had a strong influence on Bolivia.

Just a few months into his term, Morales re-nationalised the country’s vast natural gas reserves, renegotiated the terms of the contracts under which foreign oil firms are operating in the country, and raised royalties and taxes on natural gas, which stood at just 18 percent from 1996 to 2005.

Since February, Bolivia has a new constitution, one of whose central aims is to bolster the rights of indigenous people. For example, native communities will decide how to manage local development and administer local natural resources. In addition, the document designates the Bolivian state as "pluri-national", in recognition of the country’s 36 native peoples, as well as blacks.

The constitution also stipulates that all Bolivians have the right to water, food, education, health care, retirement pensions, housing, electricity, telecommunications and other basic services, which the state has the obligation to ensure access to in an efficient, equitable manner.

Furthermore, the constitution bans the privatisation of water and sewage services, and says the country’s natural resources are the property of the Bolivian people and are to be administered by the state, "in the collective interest."

It also strengthens women’s rights, guaranteeing equal pay for men and women with the same job, and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.

But the opposition accuses the president of excessive concentration of power.

The head of the La Paz association of political scientists, Franklin Pareja, told IPS that if Morales is reelected, he will continue to head in the same direction, with the aim of "total hegemony," while the opposition will attempt to offset the governing party’s strength.

Besides MAS’s control over both houses of Congress, it is "fighting for the privilege of rewriting the history of the country, in a more radical manner than up to now," according to Pareja.

Analyst Carlos Toranzo said the right-wing opposition has been weakened since violent incidents last year in the central city of Santa Cruz – when radical right-wing youth groups encouraged by pro-business civic committees and opposition governors held violent protests, storming government buildings – and over rumours of ties to terrorist plans.

In another violent incident, in connection with which the then right-wing governor of the northern province of Pando, Leopoldo Fernández, was arrested, at least 15 indigenous people were shot to death when a group of Morales supporters were ambushed on their way to a pro-government rally in September 2008.

But "the concentration of power without dialogue has allowed the resurgence of figures from the past," said Pareja, who was referring precisely to Fernández, chosen by Reyes Villa, a former army officer, as his running-mate. (Fernández is in prison and facing charges for instigating the September 2008 massacre.)

At the head of the Plan Progreso para Bolivia-Convergencia Nacional movement, Reyes Villa is attempting to unite the fragmented opposition movement.

"Internal and external pressures" have helped the right come together somewhat around two main candidates, Reyes Villa and Doria Medina – the wealthiest man in Bolivia – analyst Marcos Domic told IPS.

However, the right-wing and centre-right parties have not presented a clear political platform that could serve as an attractive alternative to voters, said Domic. "Their plan is to defeat Morales and change the model of government – an unachievable goal," he said.

The analyst said the strategy of the governing MAS is to reach beyond its poor working class, peasant and indigenous support base and try to win over more votes among middle-class professionals and intellectuals, by including figures like former ombudswoman Ana María Romero on its party lists.

Pareja concurred with Domic that the opposition lacks a clear platform, and said that what unity there is on the right involves "pragmatic alliances, based on the search for political survival."

Reyes Villa has won lukewarm support from some opposition leaders in the so-called "eastern crescent", the name given to the area made up of the relatively wealthy provinces of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija, which have sought autonomy.

"An eclectic opposition" will contest the December general elections, said Pareja. In his view, currents on both the left and the right have come together in movements that do not have clearly defined political ideologies, unlike parties in Europe, for instance.

"It’s a mistake when they try to depict us as two broad fronts in confrontation, because in purely theoretical terms the left-wing and right-wing fronts do not exist. Our composition is not as radical and clearly defined as they make out," Pareja argued.