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Socialists get mandate after MAS win in Bolivia

Sandra Weiss
October 20, 2020

Projections envision an overwhelming victory for the Movement for Socialism party in Bolivia's presidential election. After returning to power, how will MAS make good on its pledges?

Luis Arce
Image: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Though the official result will not be announced for several days, it appears that voters have returned the Movement for Socialism party (MAS) to power after Sunday's presidential election in Bolivia: Luis Arce, the 57-year-old former economy and public finance minister, is projected to garner almost 53% of the vote, according to exit polls. Running for the social-democratic Revolutionary Left Front, former President Carlos Mesa won 31.5%, and Luis Camacho, who has been referred to by some media as "the Bolsonaro of Bolivia," received about 14% of the vote.

"If the absolute majority for Luis Arce is confirmed after a long year of conflicts, crises and improvisation, we will finally have a government legitimized by the voters," Maria Teresa Zegada, a sociologist and political scientist at the University of San Simon, in the city of Cochabamba, told DW. "That is good news for Bolivia," she said. 

Bolivia was shaken by unrest in the wake of the October 2019 presidential election. The opposition accused President Evo Morales of election fraud, and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. A commission from the Organization of American States  recommended new elections. Morales resigned and went into exile, first to Mexico and later to Argentina. From exile, he chose his protege and economy minister, Arce, to be the party's candidate — despite resistance from within the MAS base.

Read more: Resilient Bolivian women adapt to global warming 

'The bourgeois opposition'

The election results show that MAS continues to be an attractive political option for most Bolivians — even after Morales declined to run again, Zegada said. "This is also due to the fact that the bourgeois opposition was not able to present a clear program with an attractive candidate and a consolidated party," she added.

Read more: Bolivia descends into chaos ahead of election

"It is not enough to hold inflammatory speeches," she said in reference to Camacho, whose candidacy was opposed by several Indigenous and feminist groups, and who led in the count in his stronghold of Santa Cruz but won few votes in the rest of the country and is ultimately projected to end up in third place. The splitting of MAS's main opponents into two camps cost votes, for sure. However, Zegada noted, Mesa and Camacho combined still had a lower share of votes than MAS did.

Bolivia's emerging middle class helped MAS win votes, Carlos Nunez, an economist and political consultant in Santa Cruz, told DW. The middle class benefited when MAS was in power: Bolivia reported a gross domestic product of $9.65 billion in 2005, just before Evo Moralas took office — by the time he was forced out in 2019, the country's GDP had risen to $42.4 billion, GDP per capita had more than tripled, the currency was stable and the percent of the population living in poverty had fallen from 38% to 17%.

Middle-class voters have turned against MAS in the past, charging that the party did not do enough to address issues in health care and education — as well as nepotism within its own ranks. "Pandemic and economic crises have driven them back into the arms of MAS," Nunez said.

That doesn't give the party carte blanche. "MAS's economic model is based solely on the exploitation of raw materials and that has no future," Nunez said. The government's authoritarian style of leadership, shaped by Morales, is also outdated, he said, adding that Arce "must now prove he can renew MAS."

Read more: Key ministers resign ahead of Bolivia's presidential elections

More for MAS

Morales is preparing his return from exile. Conflicts with Arce and his vice president, David Choquehuanca — who distanced himself from Morales years ago — are inevitable. Under these circumstances, governing will be a tightrope act for Arce. Even in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, MAS no longer has a two-thirds majority, so the party will have to forge alliances for many laws.

"Both MAS and the elite who back Camacho are only democratic when it serves their interests," said Jose Antonio Quiroga, an editor at the Plural publishing house. That is the greatest danger to democracy, he said.

Despite their ideological differences, MAS and Camacho have found common ground in the past — mainly at the expense of the environment, Quiroga said. Growing more genetically modified soybeans and slash-and-burn land clearing were concessions that MAS made to the agriculture industry in Santa Cruz, he said. "A new edition of this pact could further weaken the democratic center," Quiroga said.