Bolivia: Morales Leads Still Undefined Bolivian Presidential Race

Source: The Andean Information Network

With less than four months until the December 6th Bolivian presidential elections, the field of candidates is disorganized and constantly shifting. Recent polls indicate that current President Evo Morales will likely be reelected. Although opposition leaders discuss plans to create a “united front” to challenge the incumbent, no viable alternative candidate has emerged, and individuals appear reticent to join coalitions so early in the process. Many candidates have past political experience in or allied with traditional parties. Others continue to seek affiliation with new political groups in an attempt to recreate their identity for skeptical voters. Lack of solid campaign platforms and complaints of funding shortages characterize the election atmosphere, and in many cases unofficial campaigns and contradictory press coverage make it difficult to discern who will eventually run. Opposition candidates considering alliances seem to be united only in their rejection of Morales, instead of any shared vision for governing the nation.
Unfortunately the candidates have yet to articulate clear proposals for their political, governmental and constitutional initiatives. This reflects a much deeper issue in contemporary Bolivian politics: the need for proactive alternative proposals. So far, the three vague options for Bolivian voters are to stick with the current MAS leadership and see how their reforms develop, despite the probability of continued political obstacles; revert to the traditional party model still championed by conservative leaders fighting for reelection; or choose a more moderate candidate whose proposals do not differ significantly from MAS initiatives. In this panorama, it is likely that even Bolivians less enthusiastic about MAS will still opt for the incumbent in the absence of fresh ideas.

The Pivotal Indigenous Vote
The candidates’ capacity to bridge deep regional and ethnic divides will also present an interesting campaign challenge. Recent elections and referenda results demonstrate the need for opposition contenders to tap into voter demographics outside of the urban, upper-middle class mestizo populations, which have historically represented conservative opposition groups’ core support. The urban working class, rural and indigenous populations have generally supported Morales. Some indigenous groups feel the Morales administration watered down their proposals in the process of making concessions to gain approval for the new Constitution. In particular, they have expressed frustration about the low number of new special congressional seats assigned to indigenous leaders. Yet, indigenous, municipal and regional autonomy initiatives included in MAS-promoted legislation could also provide significant benefits once they are legally defined.
Opposition strategists and the mainstream U.S. press tend to promote erroneous generalizations of indigenous voting preferences – as if they simply want to elect indigenous politicians – reflecting broader misconceptions of Bolivian politics. For example, a recent San Francisco Chronicle article the states that some of Morales’ “critics also come from a most surprising group – other indigenous leaders.”[1]  In truth, this is nothing new. Bolivia’s indigenous peoples are diverse with sometimes conflicting interests, and shifting alliances characterize all political spheres. Indigenous people are far from homogenous, and like any voters anywhere, they tend to critically consider many complex issues at play in politics beyond ethnicity.
Constitution Stipulates New Voting Procedures
According to the new constitution approved in January, the winning candidate in this year’s election must receive 50 percent or more of the votes, or earn a minimum of 40 percent and beat the next closest competitor by at least 10 percent. If this does not occur, voters must return to the polls within 60 days of the first election to choose between the two contenders who initially received the most votes. President Morales currently leads polls with 47 percent; his next closest competitor garners only 9 percent approval.
Candidate                         Poll Score           Confirmed Campaign?
Evo Morales                       47%                     Yes
Victor Hugo Cardenas       9%                        Yes
Samuel Doria Medina        7%                        Yes
Ruben Costas                    6%                        No
Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga         5%                        Yes
Manfred Reyes Villa          5%                        Yes

La Razón, “Encuesta da a Evo el 47% en la intención de voto.” 6 July 2009.

Media coverage is confusing and speculative, reflecting the general disorganization of this campaign season so far. For example, despite the indications of this poll, Ruben Costas explicitly announced that he would not be “a presidential, vice presidential or legislative representative” [2] candidate. The media also continues to speculate about former President Carlos Mesa as a possible contender, although in April he announced he would not run for reelection.
Party Leaders on All Sides Express Doubts
Commenting on the lack of campaign challengers, MAS representative Jose Pimentel remarked that the opposition “has not assimilated the structural changes that the Bolivian people are waiting for.”[3]
Providing a realistic view, Congress member and opposition party PODEMOS leader Ninoska Lazarte stated, “The objective of the opposition should be to arrive at a second round of elections.”[4] This would mean that opposition contenders took enough votes away from Morales that he could not win the election by more than 50 percent of the vote, seemingly a rather desperate goal. Another PODEMOS senator, Fernando Rodriguez, more pessimistically stated that it seems some opposition candidates “are jumping into a pool without water.”[5]
Controversial Electronic Voter Registry
As part of the recent electoral law debate, congressional opposition leaders demanded a new “biometric” voter registry that would save electronic records of voters’ fingerprints and photo identification, claiming that the existing registry facilitated electoral fraud. They obtained this concession as part of the new electoral law.
In response to conservative leaders’ criticism of the existing voter registry, moderate representative Alejandro Colanzi (UN) emphasized that, ironically, they did not question this same system when they were elected:

There has been talk of the supposedly sullied electoral register. However, concerns about that same [registry] which elected the senators, representatives, mayors and prefects who demanded it be cleaned up didn’t cause them to resign; so, their attitude doesn’t make sense. It’s because the registry only interests politicians that use democracy as a tool, without understanding that it is supposed to serve the citizens… who, obviously, have been abandoned.[6]

 In response, the Bolivian government contracted an Argentine company to carry out the registry process and install necessary equipment.
However, MAS leaders express concern that this process will not be complete for the December 6 election deadline. The House of Representatives, led by a MAS majority, passed a bill that would allow the old, manually generated voter registry to be used in case the biometric system cannot be implemented in time. But the conservative opposition-dominated Senate rejected the bill the night of July 7. Senator Walter Guiteras (PODEMOS) indicated that opposition leaders would consider modifying the electoral law if the biometric system fails. The president of the National Electoral Court, Antonio Costas, announced on August 9 that he approved a contingency plan to back up the electronic registry system. Costas estimates that the registry will be complete by October 15, and replacement machinery and personnel are ready to implement should the need arise.
The Remaining Four Months May Hold Surprises
In Bolivia, it is difficult to predict election outcomes four months before the vote. Unforeseeable political alliances will likely be formed with little notice and will shift constantly until Election Day as candidates shop around for parties and popular support. It is important to note that politics in Bolivia have always made for strange bedfellows. For example, in the 1980s the Leftist Revolutionary Movement (MIR) party proclaimed that “rivers of blood” separated them from the politics of conservative dictators.  Eight members of their party were murdered under the authority of dictator Luis Garcia Mesa on January 15, 1981. Evidence also implicates Garcia Mesa’s second in command, Luis Arce Gomez, in the plane accident in which a severely burned MIR leader, Jaime Paz Zamora, was the only survivor. Ironically, MIR reversed its position in 1989 as the party formed an alliance with another former dictator, General Hugo Banzer, to allow third place winner Paz Zamora to assume the presidency. At that juncture MIR asserted, “We built a bridge of democracy.”
AIN will continue to closely monitor the campaign. Look for the follow-up to this piece, “Who’s Who in the Bolivian Presidential Elections.”


[1] San Francisco Chronicle, “Bolivian president’s surprising critics.” 26 July 2009.
[2] La Razón, “Mesa se aparta y la oposición busca líder.” 17 April 2009.
[3] Ibíd.
[4] La Razón, “La oposición teme por la dispersión.” 7 July 2009.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Colanzi, Alejandro. Emailed newsletter. AIN translation. “Se discute un padrón electoral supuestamente sucio, que sin embargo es el mismo por el que senadores, diputados, alcaldes y prefectos han sido electos, clamor de limpieza que no mereció la renuncia de ninguno de los denunciantes, actitud que fuera la lógica. Es que el padrón sólo le interesa a la clase política: esa que toma a la democracia como fin para sí, sin entender que su objetivo es el ciudadano… que, claro, se encuentra abandonado.