Two presidential previews

Bolivia goes to the polls on Sunday, exactly a year after the last election, which ended with the resignation and flight of then-president Evo Morales. Like New Zealand’s the previous day, the election has been postponed due to Covid-19; it was previously scheduled for May, then September.

This is Bolivia’s chance for a return to normality after the controversy surrounding last year’s vote, in which Morales, having secured the removal of term limits despite a referendum result to the contrary, was declared the first round winner in suspicious circumstances, leading to widespread popular protests and his departure in circumstances that, depending on one’s point of view, could be described as a coup.

Jeanine Áñez, former vice-president of the Senate and an opponent of Morales, took over as acting president, promising to organise early elections and not to be a candidate herself. She later broke that promise, but last month, trailing badly in the polls, she withdrew so as not to divide the non-left vote. Former president and centre-right candidate Jorge Quiroga also withdrew earlier this month.

That leaves six candidates, three of them serious: former finance minister Luis Arce, representing Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS); another former president, centrist Carlos Mesa, who was declared the loser of last year’s election; and right-winger Luis Camacho. Polls generally show Arce leading fairly narrowly from Mesa, with Camacho back in the low teens.

The method of determining the victor has not been changed despite last year’s problems: to avoid a runoff, a candidate needs to either win an absolute majority of the vote, or be above 40% and more than ten points clear of their nearest rival. The first clearly won’t be met, and the second looks highly unlikely.

Mesa seems best placed to win in the second round (scheduled for 29 November), and in the circumstances is probably also the best chance to provide the national reconciliation that Bolivia needs.

Northern Cyprus, by contrast, held its first round two weeks ago, and goes to a runoff on Sunday. Incumbent president Mustafa Akıncı is seeking a second term, but in the first round he trailed prime minister Ersin Tatar by two and a half points.

Most observers don’t consider Northern Cyprus a real country; it consists of the northern third of the island, occupied by Turkish troops since 1974 and de facto independent of the internationally recognised government of the rest of Cyprus. But although heavily dependent on Turkey (the only country that recognises it), it does have interesting and competitive elections.

The main issue, as usual, is the future status of the island. Akıncı is a moderate who favors reconciliation with the ethnically-Greek south and a federal solution; Tatar is a Turkish nationalist who argues for a “two-state solution” – that is, permanent independence for the north, which the Greeks are unlikely to ever accept.

Power is shared between president and parliament on something like the French model, and the broad political division between moderate and nationalist forces (on which the electorate seems fairly evenly divided) is complicated by personal and political rivalries.

The last parliamentary election, in January 2018, saw the nationalist National Unity Party (UBP) returned as the biggest party, but its opponents – mostly moderates, but including some rival nationalists – managed to put together a coalition government under Tufan Erhürman, leader of the moderate Republican Turkish Party (CTP). That government fell apart last year, and UBP leader Tatar took over as prime minister, “cohabiting” with an unsympathetic president.

In the first round, Tatar won 32.3% of the vote, ahead of Akıncı on 29.8% and Erhürman on 21.7%. Erhürman and the CTP promptly endorsed Akıncı. But Tatar was busily shoring up nationalist support, particularly with the partial reopening of an abandoned beach resort just before the first round, abetted by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who hosted the prime minister for a visit to Ankara.

Above the twists and turns of local politics, the big thing that has changed for Northern Cyprus in the last few years is the attitude of Turkey. In his early years in power, Erdoğan defined himself in opposition to Turkish nationalism, pursuing conciliatory policies towards the west and Greece in particular. In broad terms, he and the CTP were on the same page.

Now the picture is quite different. Erdoğan has become an enthusiastic nationalist, persecuting the Kurds, sparring with Greece and nurturing ambitions for Turkish great power status. This time around it is the nationalists in Northern Cyprus who can depend on his support.

We’ll see on Sunday whether it will do them any good.

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