It wasn’t unexpected, but Evo Morales has extended his rule to a third consecutive term after Sunday’s general elections in Bolivia, where exit polls show that Morales leads his nearest rival, Samuel Doria Medina, by a margin of around 60% to 24%, easily avoiding a runoff and propelling him into position to become Bolivia’s longest-serving leader.
Although Morales himself introduced a two-term limitation in a new constitution promulgated by popular referendum in 2009, he argued that because he was elected to his first term in 2005 under the old Bolivian constitution, his 2009 reelection was his first ‘term’ under the new constitution, paving the way for Sunday’s reelection bid.
Unless the Bolivian Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional (Plurinational Legislative Assembly) votes to overturn those term limits, however, Morales will now become a lame-duck president, whose final term will end in 2019.
Though the final results of Bolivia’s parliamentary elections are not yet available, it was also expected that Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS, Movement for Socialism) would retain its control over both houses of the national assembly.
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Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, won reelection for many reasons, including his faithful support among Bolivia’s majority indigenous population. Bolivia’s economy is roaring, thanks to a commodity boom and high demand (and high prices) for Bolivian natural gas in neighboring Argentina and Brazil. Though Morales came to office as a firebrand disciple of the late socialist Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, he has taken a more nuanced approach to economic policy than chavismo might otherwise indicate. Though Morales has nationalized many of Bolivian’s industries, including major gas, mining and telecommunications interests, even orthodox economic policymakers admit that the Morales government has done a good job of managing state assets. Morales has reduced Bolivian public debt, and he has used the proceeds of the Bolivian commodities bonanza to finance programs that have sharply reduced poverty in South America’s poorest country.
He also wins plaudits from cocaleros, local coca farmers, who no longer have to worry about harassment from anti-drug paramilitary efforts, largely supported and financed by the United States, to eradicate coca, which remains an important cultural crop throughout many Andean communities. He’s also introduced a degree of political stability virtually unknown in Bolivia since the earliest days of independence, and he’s probably done more, rather than less, to entrench Bolivian democracy after years of coups, military rule, and disrespect for democratic ideals and the rule of law. Before his reelection on Sunday, Morales was already the longest-serving president since the 1820s. By contrast, Bolivia saw five presidential administrations in the eight years prior to Morales’s first election, most notable for the brutality deployed against anti-neoliberal protesters in 2002.
Though Morales has many reasons to delight in his reelection and Bolivia’s gradual progress over the past eight years, there are reasons to believe his third term might be tougher than his first two.
Notwithstanding Morales’s surprisingly prudent management of Bolivia’s current commodities boom, the economy remains dependent upon the Argentine and Brazilian markets, both of which are flagging, which could dampen Bolivia’s growth in the years ahead. If natural gas prices drop, as might be expected if the United States increases exports of liquidified natural gas, Bolivia’s boom could easily turn to bust, replicating past volatile cycles (e.g., Bolivia’s former thriving silver and tin industries).
Though Morales may have been an able fiscal manager, his policies have still been too risky to attract much foreign investment, despite his best efforts to jumpstart the mining of some of the world’s largest lithium deposits, located deep within southwestern Bolivia’s salt plains. Over-reliance on natural gas revenues and under-development of new industries could reverse the gains of the Morales era. Accordingly, the greatest challenge for Morales in the next five years will be to find a way to moderate his socialist rhetoric in a way that can pave the way for greater development and reduce corruption without abandoning his government’s commitment to economic equality, poverty reduction and social welfare programs.
Morales may also face growing political dissent. For the past eight years, Morales has been lucky insofar as the right-wing opposition, and former political elite, have not understood how the Morales phenomenon has so fundamentally transformed Bolivia both substantively and symbolically. Outside of the Santa Cruz department, the opposition has virtually no major organic support among the Bolivian electorate. That could change over the next five years.
It’s even more likely, however, that the real political challenge to Morales will come from the leftist coalition that has so far supported him. When Morales tried to build a highway through the Amazonian basin in 2010, indigenous groups stood up to him. Though Morales eventually relented and abandoned the plans a year later, he initially used police force to try to disperse protests.
A controversial new mining law introduced earlier this year also attracted fierce protest from mining cooperatives, who wanted the ability to negotiated deals with third-party developers. In the meanwhile, environmentalists have grown increasingly concerned that Morales has prioritized economic growth over ecological balance, especially with respect to new natural gas projects and potential lithium development. Just as with the 2010 protests, Morales responded to the anti-mining law protests with something less than enthusiasm for freedom of expression.
Morales and MAS has so far been able to conquer and divide contrary voices within the Bolivian left, but a united front among indigenous groups, environmental activists and mining employees could prove the most potent challenge to Morales yet, especially if Bolivia’s economy slows.
Moreover, unless he pushes for a constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits (a step that would undermine Bolivian democracy), Morales will also have to smooth the path for a successor to carry the ‘indigenous socialism’ mantle forward after 2019.
Newly reelected, Morales will almost certainly face economic and political headwinds in the next five years, and the way that he responds to those difficulties may ultimately define his final legacy to Bolivia.