Voters rebuke Evo Morales and the ruling party
ON WINNING power nine years ago, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, touted his victory as the end of 500 years of colonial rule. Bolivia may have been independent since 1825, but its rulers had the outlook of the imperialists. Change came at last with Mr Morales’s indigenous resistance movement. It would govern “for the next 500 years”, he proclaimed.
The president’s mastery of theatre and symbolism, and his rewriting of the constitution to reinforce the rights of Bolivia’s large indigenous population, go a long way toward explaining his enduring popularity. In elections last October he easily won a third term. His Movement To Socialism (MAS) claimed two-thirds of the seats in both chambers of the legislature. Supporters began talking of a fourth term in office starting in 2020, even though under the constitution he is not eligible to run again.
So the results in regional and local elections held on March 29th came as a shock. Opposition candidates for mayor won in eight out of Bolivia’s ten largest cities, up from five at the last vote in 2010. The MAS won four of the gubernatorial races in the nine autonomous administrative departments (like states), down from seven last time. In two where nobody won a majority, run-off votes are to be held on May 3rd. The vote count in a third awaits an official ruling on a run-off. In those states splintered anti-government forces have an opportunity to unite behind a single candidate. The vote was a stinging rebuke to the MAS, and a warning to Mr Morales.
Most worrying for the governing party was its performance in the department of La Paz, until now a stronghold. It lost both the governorship of the department and the mayor’s race in El Alto, a sprawling settlement populated mainly by indigenous Aymara voters, Mr Morales’s keenest supporters. The opposition mayor of the city of La Paz, Bolivia’s seat of government, was re-elected with a bigger majority. Although the MAS enjoyed the benefits of incumbency and the backing of the highly partisan state-run media, it received just 41% of the votes, down from 61% in October’s national election. Before the balloting Mr Morales threatened not to co-operate with opposition mayors and governors, a tactic that may have backfired.
He pinned the blame for the MAS’s poor performance on corruption at regional and local governments and, oddly, on machismo (the victorious opposition candidate to be mayor of El Alto was a woman). Carlos Mesa, a historian and former president, thinks voters are beginning to resent the self-serving way in which the MAS exercises power and are less impressed by the moral authority that comes from its indigenous origins. They are “no longer willing to provide a blank cheque,” he says.
The president is much more popular than his party, which nevertheless remains a formidable force. The MAS was the only party to field candidates in all seats, and won more than two-thirds of the 339 mayoral elections. Its local branches are nourished with funds from a powerful national organisation. The opposition is fragmented into mostly tiny parties, none of which is strong enough to take on Mr Morales and the MAS countrywide. Their reign will not hit the 500-year mark, but it could go on for quite a while longer.