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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Explained: What the return of the socialists means for Bolivia

The MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce, handpicked by Morales, effectively won the national vote on Sunday after his main rival, the centrist former President Carlos Mesa, conceded defeat.

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: October 21, 2020 7:29:41 am
Morales’ party claimed victory in a presidential election that appeared to reject the right-wing policies of the interim government that took power in Bolivia after the leftist leader resigned and fled the country a year ago. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A year after Bolivia’s Left-wing leader Evo Morales was driven out of power by massive protests post the contested 2019 general elections, his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party is set to return to power in the South American nation, with a landslide victory.

The MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce, handpicked by Morales, effectively won the national vote on Sunday after his main rival, the centrist former President Carlos Mesa, conceded defeat.

Exit polls, which predicted a sharp shift away from the ruling US-backed conservative government, showed MAS winning by around 20 percentage points. The socialist party, however, has stopped short of announcing victory before the official results were announced.

The fraught 2019 vote

Morales, Bolivia’s first President of indigenous origin, had been at the country’s helm since 2006, and was credited with bringing economic stability to the Andean nation, enjoying overwhelming popularity among rural voters.

However, he was also criticised for increasing authoritarian impulses after he managed to overturn a 2016 referendum that put in place term limits to office, and ran in 2019 for the fourth time.

The elections were held in October, and initial results showed a tight race between Morales and the more conservative Mesa. Soon after, the publication of the results by the election body was abruptly stopped for 24 hours. After it resumed, Morales was shown as leading by a greater margin, a lead of more than 10 percent.

The results were seen with suspicion, and protesters rallied on the streets for weeks. An audit by the Organisation of American States (OAS), a group consisting of all the major powers in the region, spoke of “clear manipulation”.

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Facing stiff resistance, including from the Bolivian military, Morales resigned after alleging the role of a “civic-political-police” conspiracy to remove him from power.

After Morales’s departure, Bolivia was run by the conservative Jeanine Añez, who led an unelected interim government that sought to move away from the country’s long-running socialist policies.

Now, with MAS back in power, the landlocked nation is again expected to take a Leftward turn.

Arce’s uphill task

Bolivia, among Latin America’s poorest countries, has its export economy largely dependent on natural gas and mineral extraction. During the 2000s commodity boom, it witnessed high growth rates, and massive investments in social spending by Morales during that time ensured popularity.

However, like in the case of other mineral-rich nations around the world, Bolivia’s woes began exacerbating from 2015 after the boom ended. Experts believe that Arce, a UK-educated economist who was Morales’s finance minister from 2006 to 2017, now faces the twin challenge of delivering results without sufficient hydrocarbon revenues, as well as battling the economic fallout of Covid-19.

What the election means for Bolivia

The MAS victory in Bolivia has drawn support from Leftist governments in the Americas, such as Mexico, Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela, who see the result as heralding the return of socialism in the region after the Covid-19 crisis.

The Trump administration, which had celebrated Morales’ ouster in 2019, has also struck a more conciliatory tone after the polls, with a State Department spokesperson saying that Washington would work with “whomever the Bolivians elect”.

The results, seen as a major blow to Bolivia’s right wing, are also expected to pave Morales’s return to the country from his exile in Argentina, although it remains uncertain what role he would play in the new MAS government.

In an editorial, the Madrid-based El País newspaper called the peaceful election “excellent news” for Bolivia, and hailed the immediate recognition of MAS’s victory by losing forces as an “important step” for Bolivian institutions.

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