Is Bolivia’s vote a comeback for Latin America’s left? Not so fast.

Juan Karita/AP
Luis Arce (center), Bolivian presidential candidate for the Movement Towards Socialism Party, and running mate David Choquehuanca (second right) celebrate during a press conference where they claim victory after general elections in La Paz, Bolivia, Oct. 19, 2020.

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One year ago, Bolivia’s election ended in chaos: weeks of protest; incumbent President Evo Morales fleeing the country; and a right-wing interim government stepping in, which twice postponed redo elections.

When the long-awaited vote was held this week, observers across Latin America viewed it as more than a referendum on Mr. Morales’ socialist leadership. It was a wider test: Could Latin America’s political left – the so-called pink tide – make a comeback?

Why We Wrote This

Right- and left-wing parties have closely watched Bolivia this year, ever since a disputed election sent longtime President Evo Morales into exile. But does socialists’ win at the polls this week foretell a resurgence of the “pink tide”?

The socialist party candidate, Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, won at the polls. But that’s not a harbinger for the region, analysts say. Instead, the biggest takeaway for Bolivia’s neighbors is the rejection of incumbents in a region where faith in democracy is on the decline, and economic security is in a tailspin, says Christina Ewig, an expert on Latin American politics. 

The conservative interim government made a series of missteps, which combined with the unprecedented toll of COVID-19 to lay the groundwork for socialists’ return, says economist Gonzalo Chávez Alvarez. 

“Bolivia chose to resolve its problems through democracy,” Dr. Chávez says. But, he adds, “right or left, we are seeing a resistance to playing by the rules of the game” across Latin America, whether Morales in 2019, or Venezuela, Brazil, or Nicaragua today.

 “¡GAME OVER!” tweeted Venezuela’s foreign minister.

A “retreat to the left,” suggested one international headline.

Why We Wrote This

Right- and left-wing parties have closely watched Bolivia this year, ever since a disputed election sent longtime President Evo Morales into exile. But does socialists’ win at the polls this week foretell a resurgence of the “pink tide”?

A “blow to neoliberalism,” a foreign activist proclaimed.

For many, Bolivia’s long-awaited presidential election this week was not only a referendum on exiled former President Evo Morales’ 13-year term, but a test for the possible rebound of Latin America’s political left.

The socialist party candidate Luis Alberto Arce Catacora earned 54.5% of the vote with roughly 95% of votes counted by Thursday morning. It’s a rare win for the left in a region that took a sharp right turn in recent years, following more than a decade of the so-called pink tide of leftist leadership, from Brazil to Argentina, Chile to Uruguay. And it’s a striking comeback for Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, after allegations of fraud in the 2019 vote threw the country into months of civil unrest. But it’s not, experts warn, a harbinger for the reemergence of the Latin American left.

The results reflect unique aspects of Bolivia’s socio-economic situation, an Indigenous majority with a strong history of social mobilization, unhappiness with the conservative interim president, the socialist party’s move away from personality politics, and the opposition’s inability to coalesce behind a single candidate.

The biggest takeaway for Bolivia’s neighbors isn’t a return of the left, but the rejection of incumbents in a region where faith in democracy is on the decline and economic security is in a tailspin, says Christina Ewig, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies Latin American politics.

“In terms of the regional context, this doesn’t signal more votes for the left, but more votes for change,” she says. “What we’ll see more of are problems for incumbents in Latin America, especially in 2021.”

Turbulent year

Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first Indigenous president when he took office in 2006. Over the course of his three terms in office, he promised to fight inequality, tighten state control over natural resources, and distance Bolivia from imperialist powers like the United States. Mr. Arce served in his administration for more than a decade, implementing fiscal policies that don’t typically jibe with leftist governments.

But the widespread support Mr. Morales enjoyed from his base started to erode as he began consolidating power and pushed for a second, third, and finally a fourth term in office. Before the fourth campaign, voters had narrowly rejected a constitutional amendment to let him run again. Yet the Supreme Court scrapped term limits altogether in 2018, ruling it was Mr. Morales’ human right to run – putting off many of his former supporters. He claimed victory in last year’s polls, but international observers questioned the results, and protesters took to the streets. The sometimes violent protests lasted nearly a month.

Manuel Claure/Reuters
Sabino Chavez Mamani, member of the Departmental Electoral Tribunal, attends the counting of votes after nationwide election, in La Paz, Bolivia, Oct. 21, 2020.

Mr. Morales fled Bolivia, while a U.S.-backed, right-wing interim government took the helm. When interim President Jeanine Áñez was sworn in, she made a show of bringing Christianity with her, after the last administration’s emphasis on Indigenous traditions. “The Bible has returned to the government palace!” she declared, carrying an oversized Bible.

A series of missteps, combined with the unprecedented economic and health tolls of COVID-19, laid the groundwork for a return to MAS leadership, says Gonzalo Chávez Alvarez, an economist who directs the master’s in development program at the Catholic University of Bolivia.

“This vote isn’t saying everything Morales did before was wonderful,” Dr. Chávez says. “It was a vote for social and economic change.”

Over the past year, the transitional government, which postponed the vote twice, “made many errors that scared voters,” Dr. Chávez says, including corruption, a lack of coordinated leadership, violent crackdowns on Indigenous communities and protesters, and the “terrible idea of the interim president presenting herself as a candidate for reelection,” even though she later took herself out of the running.

“Bolivians had a taste of what the right would be like and they really blew it under Áñez,” Dr. Ewig says. “She wasn’t prepared to be president. It was a year of right-wing rule that was disastrous and reminded people how much elites in Bolivia can be really exclusionary to the majority of the population, which is Indigenous.”

Former President Carlos Mesa, who also ran, “was painted with the same brush.”

The opposition had a hard time deciding whom to back, much like Venezuela’s opposition, which for nearly two decades failed to unite to contest increasingly authoritarian leftist leaders. The closest contender in Bolivia’s vote, the centrist Mr. Mesa, led the country during a tough economic crisis, conjuring up unhappy memories. President-elect Arce, by contrast, was finance minister at the height of the region’s commodity boom.

“We have recovered democracy,” Mr. Arce said in a speech early Monday, when early results signaled his victory. “We are going to govern for all Bolivians and construct a government of national unity.” He said Mr. Morales is welcome to return home, but he needs to answer to the justice system for the numerous charges lodged against him.

Over the past year, MAS and President-elect Arce were able to move themselves away from Mr. Morales’ powerful personality and become a more institutionalized party. And his emphasis on unity has given international observers hope.

“MAS has been an incredible force in Bolivian politics, and for it to become more institutionalized as a party rather than a personal vehicle for Evo Morales is really important for the long-term health of democracy,” says Dr. Ewig.

Questions ahead

Many of the international lessons from Sunday’s vote may be yet to emerge, depending on how Mr. Arce moves forward. Will he truly distance himself from his predecessor, as was the case in Ecuador after Rafael Correa, observers ask? Or will he follow the path of Venezuela, where Nicolás Maduro leans heavily on predecessor Hugo Chávez’s name and legacy?

Bolivia is in economic crisis, Dr. Chávez says, and whether Mr. Arce tries to create a new path or falls back on policies from the Morales days will have a big impact on what comes next. “This wasn’t just the interim government mismanaging the economy, this began back in 2014,” he says of Bolivia’s economic downturn. The GDP is forecast to shrink nearly 8% this year.

The global consequences of COVID-19 are hitting Latin America particularly hard, pummeling already fragile economies, increasing inequality, and feeding preexisting feelings that the promises of democracy haven’t delivered. With general and midterm elections taking place across the region later this year and in 2021 – from Argentina to Mexico to Venezuela – regional governments and citizens may hold up Bolivia as an example for peaceful change.

“Bolivia chose to resolve its problems through democracy,” Dr. Chávez says. “That’s a win for democracy. It proves turmoil can be resolved with the vote,” he says.

“But, right or left, we are seeing a resistance to playing by the rules of the game” across Latin America, he says, whether Morales in 2019 or Venezuela, Brazil, or Nicaragua today. 

“It’s democracy that saved Bolivia’s socialist movement.”

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