Bolivia’s Plurinational Project at the Crossroads

Misión Verdad, Orinoco Tribune, March 4, 2024 —

Evo Morales and Luis Arce are engaged in a suicidal battle for the leadership of what once was a solid and mostly unblemished process. Both leaders started getting distant from each other once the cycle of institutional actions that led to the judicialization of key actors in the 2019 coup, namely Jeanine Áñez and Luis Fernando Camacho, had been exhausted.

The Bolivian political landscape has become distorted because Áñez and Camacho were the visible political figures of the Bolivian opposition. Their trial and sentencing resulted in a crisis of leadership and vision among those opposed to the “process of change.”

Meanwhile, Carlos Mesa (former presidential candidate and the most voted opposition figure in 2019) has faded from politics, to the point of losing his support base. To put it in comparative terms with Venezuela, Mesa is the political equivalent of Henrique Capriles, albeit with a much more accelerated deterioration of his leadership.

The ruling party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) then seemed to rearrange the political landscape. The process of destroying the opposition (post-coup effect) turned out to be very effective and translated into a sudden feeling of reduced threats against the revolutionary forces. The terrible management of the pandemic by far-right politicians, in addition to inefficiency, corruption, and social repression, contributed to this weakening.

The initial impetus for the recovery of democracy, the return of the left to power and the weakening of the opposition created a favorable scenario that encouraged the aspirations of Evo Morales for a triumphant return to the presidency.

Personalities linked to the Bolivian process of change, including Morales, hinted that Arce’s appointment as a candidate had been agreed upon the premise that he would be a transitional figure between the political cycle of the coup and the reinstitutionalization of democracy. According to this premise, the culmination of the process would bring Morales back to new mandate, as his election as president in 2019 was cut short by the coup. But Arce seems to have deviated from that alleged agreement.

Since 2022, Morales has developed a narrative that is critical of the “reformist” tendencies in the Arce government. Then, progressively, the dispute crossed the threshold of an organic division in MAS and its constituent bodies.

Unlike traditional parties in Latin America, the MAS organization is based on the cohesion of various political bodies called “social movements” that represent either a specific territory or an economic sector. However, it is the groups that represent economic sectors that predominates in the area of ​​decisions, organization, mobilization, agitation, and other processes typical of party organization.

Arce and Morales have had difficult communications to resolve their contradictions in public, and each often accuse the other of breaching agreements. Arce has defined Morales as the “main opponent” of his government. In November 2023, the Center for Latin American Geopolitical Studies (CELAG) published a survey analyzing the opinion of Bolivians on different topics. Regarding the “main political problem in the near future,” 42.8% of those surveyed indicated that it is the confrontation between Evo Morales and Luis Arce, while 21.5% considered corruption and drug trafficking to be the main problem in the near future.

The dispute between the two leaders is the central event in the country’s politics and the displacement of the opposition to a minimal expression in the national dynamic has brought Morales as the main actor. This diatribe is widely exploited by traditional media, the vast majority of which are owned by conservative and right-wing groups. It is clearly convenient for the usual suspects to consider Morales as the main antagonist.

This situation turned sour for Morales on December 30, 2023, when the Supreme Court of Bolivia banned indefinite presidential reelection and reinstated the maximum term limit as two terms. This, by default, nullifies Morales’ aspirations and disqualifies his candidacy.

The seriousness of this announcement goes beyond the damage to Morales. The ruling also weakens the political bases that Morales relied upon during in the 2019 elections. Seeking his fourth consecutive term, Morales called a constitutional referendum on February 21, 2016 to change the law that prohibited him from running again.

On that occasion, the majority of voters rejected the proposed modification. In 2017, the Constitutional Court of Bolivia recognized the right to indefinite reelection, and in 2018, the electoral body enabled Morales’ candidacy. However, for many opposition sectors, Morales’ candidacy was illegal, considering that crossing the two consecutive presidential terms was unconstitutional. Now the Bolivian judiciary has changed the rules and reverted to the old ways.

Morales described the event as part of a judicial persecution. The court politically penalized Morales belatedly, giving momentum to narratives that the opposition has sustained over these years and deepening the Morales-Arce dispute.

Morales and Arce facing a crisis in Bolivia
Firstly, it is necessary to refer to the incipient economic crisis in Bolivia. The Bolivian economy is experiencing a depletion of its exchange rate system model. Although theoretically free and floating, the system is characterized by an exchange rate artificially contained by regulations and state interventions.

In summary, since 2015, Bolivia has had fiscal deficits covered with debt. But it has simultaneously been depleting its foreign currency reserves. Another crucial element is that in Bolivia, fuel is subsidized, a part of it is imported and paid for in foreign currency, while fuel reaches the population under subsidy in bolivianos (the local currency).

The country has simultaneously financialized the deficit with the issuance of local currency. Social programs, and expenses during the pandemic, among other current government expenses, have been partially covered during these years through monetary issuance. Despite all these conditions, the boliviano has not been significantly devalued; the governments of Morales and Arce have avoided allowing a devaluation at all costs, for which they have poured huge amounts of foreign currency to the currency exchange system. It is likely that in Bolivia the implementation of a monetary adjustment and modifications of the exchange rate system is being postponed. Surely this has been deferred for political reasons.

In March 2023, Bolivia began experiencing a shortage of dollars, creating a temporary running to the banks by the population to withdraw funds in foreign currency. The government applied flexibility measures for the flow of dollars, managing to mitigate the uncertainty.

In February of this year, Arce took measures that, in a way, broke with part of the “social pact” that Evo Morales had promoted (with Arce himself as minister) to administer the Bolivian economy. One of the measures is the end of fuel subsidies and the decree of an export incentive policy, to facilitate the entry of dollars into the economy.

In Bolivia, food can only be exported when the authorities consider that supply in the domestic market is guaranteed, so exporters had to obtain a supply certificate before selling their items abroad. Now the government announced that soybeans, meat, sugar, and other items will be exempt from this certificate, which should alleviate the difficulties suffered by the export sector.

More than three decades ago, the government of Bolivia implemented a subsidy for the purchase of fuel, despite warning that its cost was one of the main reasons for the deterioration of state coffers. In recent times, fuel imports have skyrocketed, as have episodes of supply shortages, which accentuated complaints, especially from large grain producers in the east of the country. In addition, Arce began the issuance of bonds in dollars to mitigate the need for foreign currency in the economy.

Although Arce’s measures are more than justified by the change in economic conditions, Morales accuses Arce of being “neoliberal” and “moving to the right.”

Another aspect of the current Bolivian crisis is occurring at the institutional level. In short, the judiciary is likely acquiring characteristics of an autonomous entity with the power to dangerously affect the stability of the country, as a collegiate body, a “State within the State,” replicating practices that are similar in the judicial establishment of Peru. Thus, this power is altering political correlations and affecting the institutional climate vis-à-vis the other branches of power.

The situation of “judicial coup” is yet to happen, given that there has been no forced change in other powers, but with the pace of events it is likely that this scenario will be reached. The judicial crisis in Bolivia was created due to the decision of the Plurinational Constitutional Court of Bolivia (TCP) that approved, through ruling 0049/2023, the indefinite extension of its own mandate and that of the other judicial courts of the country, which were supposed to operate until December 31, 2023.

The norm of elections of judges and magistrates was introduced in the Bolivian Constitution of 2009 and was carried out on two occasions, in October 2011 and in December 2017, for which two-thirds of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (ALP) are needed to approve the list of candidates.

On December 11, 2023, the TCP unanimously declared the unconstitutionality of a draft Transitional Law on Judicial Elections that was to be discussed by the ALP, producing a direct clash between the judiciary and the parliament.

At the beginning of this year, Evo Morales emerged as the organizer of road closures that paralyzed Bolivia for two weeks to stop a “judicial coup.” The roadblocks that the peasants who follow Morales carried out for days was able to make the parliament, after reaching an inter-party agreement, to call for June the judicial elections that had been blocked since last year.

However, they did not succeed in getting the judges of all the high courts, whose mandate expired in December—but which was extended indefinitely by the TCP—to be replaced by other judges. This last point is key. Morales points to several magistrates who issued the ruling that prevented his candidacy.

Amid this crisis, Arce signed a law that called for elections in the judiciary but declared that the closure of roads was “unnecessary,” since it cost the Bolivian economy $1 billion, thus criticizing Morales. In addition, Arce said that he would activate “processes” against the organizers of the closures.

Facing an institutional crisis, both leaders preferred to dispute the leadership and the containment of the situation itself, but Arce has gone further by raising the possibility of prosecuting Morales.

These facts of comprehensive crisis, which involve political, economic, and institutional aspects, began in 2019 and accelerated with the collapse of the natural antagonisms between the ruling “Masismo” and the opposition. This has translated into a significant depoliticization of the society and a very significant loss of trust of the people in political and social institutions, according to various analyses.

The debate over the events of 2019, whether it was a “coup d’état” or “electoral fraud,” still challenges those who believe that there was an unconstitutional interruption of the government with the coming to power of former senator Jeanine Áñez as de facto president, as well as those who consider that the results of the elections were altered after several complaints of lack of transparency.

All of this generates uncertainty in the run up to the 2025 presidential elections. The First National Polarization Survey, an initiative of the Unámonos project, revealed important data on Bolivians’ perception of political representativeness: 73.9% of the population does not consider political parties to be important for the future of the country, while 66.8% say the same about citizen platforms, 63.1% about social movements, and 65.3% about unions.

Ana Velasco, political scientist and coordinator of these polls refers to a key concept to understand the panorama: political orphanhood.

“People don’t even believe that it is important for the future to have political parties or citizen platforms or social movements or unions, all these organizations that are called to promote political representation,” she explained. “Hence this notion of political orphanhood arises, because it is one thing to have bad politicians or parties that are failing, a system of representation that does not work, but it is more worrying that one does not even consider political platforms to be necessary in the future. Nobody is going to miss them, because things are done despite them and not thanks to them.”

According to this poll, nearly half of those surveyed do not feel represented either by the discourses of the national government or by those of their regional governments. “There is a feeling of non-representation, somewhat greater among those younger than 40 years old and among non-indigenous people. This invisible effect of polarization, according to the study, is the product of a state of political orphanhood,” added Velasco.

However, the process of “orphanhood” is minor among grassroots sectors, especially among social movements with accumulated political organizations. Although this organization could be breaking down due to divisions in the leadership, these groups tend towards mobilization on one side of the Morales-Arce confrontation, while others move towards immobilization and disenchantment.

Possible political scenarios for 2025
The most recent data on Bolivia has been offered by CELAG. According to its report, President Luis Arce’s administration has a positive evaluation of 47.2% among the population, and his image is positive for 39.4%. Regarding the management of the economy, 36.3% of those surveyed see it positively, and the management of public works is positive for 37.4%.

Regarding the opposition and the capacity of its leadership to defeat the MAS, the survey shows that no opposition leader exceeds 14% of the people’s support: the one who manages to get the highest percentage is Manfred Reyes Villa with just 13.7%, followed by Carlos Mesa with 10.3%. It is striking that, the votes of “a new candidate,” “none” and “did not know/did not answer” represented 51.7% of the opposition base.

As the next electoral process is far away, likely at the end of 2025, few surveys have been released; however, since 2022 Arce has continued holding the preference and Morales also appears in the top positions, although then they were compared with other politicians who are out of the scene today, such as Luis Fernando Camacho, who appeared as the second favorite in a survey conducted by the polling firm Captura Consulting.

The surveys released since 2023 is contradictory in some cases. Some refer to weakness in the ruling party while others refer to strength. There could be bias in these measurements. However, the few available surveys agree that there is a vacuum in political leadership. Between 40% and 50% of the population is looking for a new leadership and that expectation is mainly among opposition sypathizers. The Diagnosis polling firm stated that the need for “newness” in political leadership is transversal to partisan self-identification.

The political scenario in Bolivia is complex even for the opposition. The two opposition groups Comunidad Ciudadana and CREO, through their parliamentarians, have expressed criticism of the ruling party for its internal disputes which, as they explain, also obstruct parliamentary work and the advancement of various regulations.

They also see the moment as an opportunity to show their validity. “We believe it is working for the unity of the opposition in 2025, and while the MAS intends to entertain the Bolivian people with a congress in Lauca orchestrated by Evo Morales or with a town hall in El Alto orchestrated by Arce, I come to tell you that in 2025 neither Evo nor Arce will win,” said the opposition Deputy Erwin Bazán.

However, the experts consulted by the US government media Voice of America agree that no opposition leadership can confront the still-divided MAS.

“There is a very weak opposition, which has a minority support of around 30%, in the successive elections. However, it is a disaggregated percentage because there are different candidates as if within the opposition there are several oppositions,” political scientist María Teresa Zegada said. “They are trying to push for a unity candidacy, but I believe that it will be very difficult due to internal inconsistencies.”

Political analyst Paul Coca considers that there is an opposition “without ideological direction.” “Although the Movement Towards Socialism currently has an internal crisis and is weakened, Evo Morales has become the main opponent of this government.”

The Morales-Arce dispute takes place due to the “favorable” climate generated by the destruction of the far-right opposition leadership. One could be positioning the belief that the state of weakness of the adversary offers conditions for a rearrangement of the political map and that Morales represents a new form of opposition. The electoral decline of the right is taken for granted and a general political framework segregated into three large groups would take shape: the ruling party MAS, traditional opposition parties divided among themselves, and Evo-led “Masismo.”

However, it is possible that, with the support of the United States, which has a long experience in interference and intervention, a new leadership could emerge in Bolivia. This leadership could provide a disruptive political offer to change the current situation in the country. Even if it does not have the support of all of Bolivia’s opposition parties, this strategy could be successful. One of the candidates with the greatest political potential is Manfred Reyes Villa, who currently enjoys a good reputation.

The lack of prominent leadership in the Bolivian opposition does not appear to be coincidental, but rather part of a strategy. At this time, the emergence of a prominent figure could be counterproductive. On the contrary, the sinuous analysis and a calculation of the political timing that the MAS is going through seems to be the strategy developed by the opposition so that a new candidate can be deployed. This suggests that the opposition parties do not control the agenda and most likely work on orders from Washington.

On the other hand, there are no obvious features to suggest that the internal struggle in the MAS will be resolved in the short term. This implies a very serious political sedimentation, which continues to accumulate and continues to be dargged out. The dispute is being passed on to social factors such that various political sectors are already disputing among themselves the leadership of the sectoral and territorial organizations themselves, to achieve control of the MAS.

We are seeing a situation of disenchantment, immobilization, and disaffiliation. In other cases, there is fierce activism among leaders, which worsens the adverse cycle, since in addition to Morales and Arce, there are intermediate sectors that are inflicting wounds on each other.

The ideal scenario would be the end of the dispute, where the continuity of the government of the Plurinational State is prioritized, that is, the political project that began several decades ago. However, the shadow of division and dispute seems to deepen every day with the worsening of the Arce-Morales conflict, where an impartial third party that would allow tensions to be de-escalated within the MAS does not seem to be presented as an option either.

The possibility of a third personality, a third way or a unifying factor emerging in Bolivia is not yet clear. Andrónico Rodríguez, president of the Senate, and Freddy Mamani, president of the Chamber of Deputies, could play an important role in this regard, especially Rodríguez (although he is often associated with Morales). On the other hand, the case of David Choquehuanca is particular. Although the vice president is part of the problem and presents himself as a strong antagonist of Morales, any recomposition of the government must be aware of the objective reality that the technocrats of the Arce era are also an inherent part of power and must be considered in the process.

The dispute can likely be mitigated by the development of new leadership with unifying capabilities. This could be a way, if this rules out the presence of a new political proposal from the opposition.

In any scenario, the loss of cohesion of the MAS is the most dangerous factor for the government of Bolivia and this is worsening with each episode in the internal dispute between Morales and Arce.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *