Bolivia: Moderate Gains for Morales’ MAS Party

Bolivia’s governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party did not achieve the same level of support in Sunday’s regional elections as its leader, President Evo Morales, did in December. However, it won five of the country’s nine provinces, and possibly a sixth one.

(IPS) – Bolivia’s governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party did not achieve the same level of support in Sunday’s regional elections as its leader, President Evo Morales, did in December.

However, it won five of the country’s nine provinces, and possibly a sixth one. The final results are to be announced on Apr. 24.

According to the preliminary results, the left-wing MAS retained control of the western provinces of La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro and Potosí, and won the opposition-controlled Chuquisaca. The results in the northern Pando, meanwhile, are too close to call.

MAS also won the provincial capital Cochabamba, and Cobija, the capital of Pando.

But in La Paz, a MAS stronghold, voters were surprised when ruling party candidate Elizabeth Salguero was defeated by Luis Revilla of the Movimiento Sin Miedo (Movement Without Fear – MSM).

Salguero took 35 percent of the vote against the 47 percent garnered by Revilla, whose party is led by the current mayor of La Paz Juan del Granado, until recently an unconditional ally of Morales.

The moderate left-wing MSM also won the mayor’s office in the provincial capital of Oruro, where its candidate, journalist Rocío Pimentel, earned 39 percent of the vote.

Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, was reelected in December with a record 64 percent of the vote, interpreted by the government as a clear mandate to implement the new constitution – rewritten and approved in a referendum during his first term – and far-reaching social reforms.

But while analysts say Sunday’s vote showed that support for Morales’ policies remains strong, the outcome also indicates that the country remains polarised between the relatively wealthy eastern lowlands provinces and the impoverished western highlands, which are home to the country’s indigenous majority.

“The opposition should understand that the process of change is unstoppable, and if they cannot join it, then they should at least contribute by governing in a manner that benefits the people,” Morales said in a speech that, unlike after previous elections, was not delivered from the balcony of the government palace that looks down on the main square in La Paz but in a hall inside the building.

The president was upbeat about the exit poll results, saying the governing party had won a greater presence on the country’s 337 town councils.

MAS also won the mayorship in Cobija, traditionally a bastion of the right, with candidate Ana Luisa Reis.

In addition, the governing party triumphed in Cochabamba, where Edwin Castellanos, the lead singer of the indigenous folk music group Tupay, took 40 percent of the vote against his rival Arturo Murillo of the moderate right Frente Todos por Cochabamba (Everyone for Cochabamba Front), who garnered 37 percent.

The provincial government in Pando is disputed by MAS candidate Luis Flores and Paulo Bravo of the right-wing Consenso Popular (Popular Consensus – CP), who tied with 49 percent of the vote.

But the recount has been suspended due to pressure from members of both parties, who caused trouble in offices of the provincial election authorities.

In the eastern Santa Cruz, the country’s richest province, one of Morales’ fiercest opponents, Governor Rubén Costas of the radical right-wing Verdad Democracia Social (Social Democracy Truth – VERDES) won a second term, beating MAS candidate Jerjes Justiniano.

The opposition also held onto the northeast province of Beni, with the reelection of Governor Ernesto Suárez of the right-wing Primero el Beni (Beni First) party, with 43 percent of the vote against 39 percent for MAS candidate Jessica Jordan, a former beauty queen and newcomer to politics.

In the southern province of Tarija, Governor Mario Cossío of the right-wing Camino al Cambio (Road to Change) was reelected with 49 percent of the vote, reaffirming the provincial government’s staunch opposition to Morales’ policies.

“It is time for the strength of democracy to defeat tyranny,” Costas said.

The reelection of Costas, Suárez and Cossío belied the government’s contention that the right-wing opposition was badly weakened in the eastern and southeastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and GDP.

The Morales administration’s strategy will now range between negotiation with the badly fragmented opposition and efforts to get around local right-wing authorities in order to implement social development programmes in conjunction with non-governmental organisations, as the president warned that he would be forced to do.

Since he first took office in January 2006, Morales has broken the mould of traditional Bolivian presidents by putting a priority on social justice and the rights of the country’s historically downtrodden indigenous majority. Among the tools he has used are cash transfers to the poorest segments of society.

The Ministry of Economy and Public Finance reported that 2.5 million children, pregnant women and elderly persons, equivalent to 25 percent of the population, are beneficiaries of the cash transfer programmes created by the government to bolster human development in this land-locked country, South America’s poorest.

The programmes include a monthly pension of roughly 30 dollars for the elderly, a cash grant of 30 dollars a month per schoolchild between the 1st and 8th grades, conditional on school attendance and vaccination, and special payments to pregnant women and mothers of small children who keep regular doctors’ appointments and give birth in hospitals.