Big win for the left in Bolivia

And in the second of the weekend’s major elections (see preview here), what I’ve called the paradox of authoritarian democracy struck in Bolivia: the only way an allegedly authoritarian government can prove that it’s being fair to its opponents is by losing to them.

Over the past year there have been two competing narratives about Bolivia. The view from the left was that former president Evo Morales had been removed in a coup, and that the forces of reaction that had replaced him were hostile to democracy and would never allow a fair election. The view from the right was that Morales was a charlatan whom the people had seen through and there was no way the electorate would want him back.

Both have been proved wrong. The candidate of Morales’s party, former finance minister Luis Arce, has won a clear victory and will be the country’s new president. His foes, centrist candidate Carlos Mesa and acting president Jeanine Áñez, far from behaving like coup plotters quickly conceded defeat and congratulated him.

They did so on the basis of sample results, which showed Arce with 52.4% of the vote, more than twenty points clear of Mesa on 31.5%. When actual results started coming in they looked much less decisive, but the later counting, coming from rural areas, tends to favor the left. With just under half the vote counted Arce now has 46.9% to Mesa’s 34.2% and 16.8% for right-winger Luis Camacho; even if he doesn’t reach 50% he only needs to be above 40% and ten points ahead for a first-round victory, and there is no longer any doubt that he will do that.

This is a major failure for the opinion polls, which had consistently put Mesa within six or eight points of Arce, and suggested he would probably beat him in a runoff. In this context, do not believe the BBC, which said beforehand that Arce had “been the consistent favourite in opinion polls” – a conclusion possible only if you don’t understand the difference between winning an election and just topping the poll in the first round.*

So does this mean that everything is back to democratic normality in Bolivia? One may hope so, but it depends a bit on what you think the original problem was. If, like me, you blame Morales for his refusal to abide by a referendum result on term limits, then it will depend on whether he and his party have learned the lesson, and especially on whether Morales will accept that Arce is now president and not behave as if he’s still the one in charge.

If you think that the underlying problem was the refusal of forces on the right to accept the verdict of democracy, then of course an election result can’t of itself provide any guarantee. But the clarity of this one, and the conciliatory rhetoric coming since from both sides, at least puts Bolivia in a more hopeful category than a lot of other countries.

No-one can dispassionately survey the history of Latin America, whether in the last century or just the last decade, without concluding that authoritarianism is a persistent vice on both right and left. Brazil and Mexico are currently the respective leading examples. Bolivia should drive home the lesson that rigging the system does not suddenly become virtuous when it’s our own side doing it.

Arce’s opponents have done the right thing by not trying to imitate General Pinochet; he needs to return the favor by not trying to imitate Fidel Castro.

Finally, as is so often the case, there’s the role of a bad electoral system. Bolivia’s is far from the worst, but the fact that a candidate can win the presidency with, say, 41% against two opponents who support each other and have 59% between them, is a major defect. It seems unlikely, however, that electoral reform will be among the new president’s top priorities.

* Thus showing that yesterday’s foolish quote from the BBC was probably a case of incompetence rather than political bias, since this time it was boosting the left instead of undermining it.

UPDATE Tuesday evening

It’s now 6am in Bolivia, so not surprisingly there’s a bit of a lull in counting. They haven’t exactly been fast, but with now 54.9% of polling places in, Arce is on 48.6% to 33.1% for Mesa and 16.1% for Camacho. The largest numbers of votes to come are from Cochabamba and La Paz departments, which are strong left territory, so on that basis alone he’d cross the 50% mark; in fact his margin has been steadily climbing as more rural votes come in, so the 52.4% from the sample result looks very plausible.

FURTHER UPDATE Wednesday morning

After another full day’s counting in Bolivia they still haven’t finished – it’s now 78.8% in. But although this was a bad result for the opinion polls, whoever did the sample count on the Sunday night did a fine job. They said Arce would get 52.4%; early in the count that looked implausible, but he’s now hit 53.0%. Centrist Mesa is way back on 29.9% and the right’s Camacho has just 14.9%.

FURTHER UPDATE Thursday evening

It’s just as well that this isn’t close, or the slowness of the counting might arouse all sorts of suspicions. But with 93.2% now done, or rather less than half a million votes to go, it’s not close at all. Arce has outperformed even the surprisingly good sample count from Sunday night: he has 54.4% of the vote, edging up towards double that of his nearest challenger, Carlos Mesa, who’s on 29.1%. Camacho is still a distant third with 14.4%.

Turnout is a very high 88.2%, about the same as last year. The other encouraging thing is that the geographical polarisation – the left strong in the highland west, the right in the lowland east – while definitely there, is not nearly as strong as it could be: even in his weakest state, Santa Cruz, Arce has more than 35% of the vote (outpolling Mesa but trailing Camacho), while Mesa is polling respectably even in La Paz.

FINAL UPDATE Friday evening

And that’s it; with all but 14 polling places in, Arce wins with a stunning 55.1% of the vote, more than 1.6 million votes ahead of Mesa, his nearest opponent, on 28.8%. Rightist Camacho has 14.0%, and the two also-rans have 2.1% between them. As you would expect with those figures, Arce’s Movement for Socialism has also won a majority in both houses of the legislature.

With Chile, Ecuador and Peru all going to the polls next year, it’ll be interesting to see how widespread the swing to the left is.

5 thoughts on “Big win for the left in Bolivia

  1. I’m no expert on Bolivia, or even anywhere close to one, so when I imagine a scenario consistent with the evidence I also imagine that there are other scenarios equally compatible with the evidence, and I just don’t know enough to draw a definite conclusion.

    However, I can imagine a scenario consistent with the evidence, and it’s as follows.

    The opponents of Morales, I imagine, were outraged by Morales trying to remain in the Presidency. Also, I expect they would have known that many people were outraged. The outrage was probably a combination of (1) a feeling that there should be term limits for the Presidency and that it would be wrong for anybody to try to get around them with (2) opposition to Morales on other (political/social/economic) grounds (in other words, that second part includes people who never wanted Morales or anybody like him to be President at all and wanted it less and less the longer he remained President, and therefore welcomed any additional grounds/pretext for opposing him).

    I think the opponents of Morales overestimated the extent of this outrage and underestimated the depth of the support for Morales and his party. If they thought it would be easy to mobilise electoral support for an anti-Morales President/candidate, they wouldn’t have needed to think about subverting the electoral process or to make any plans to do so. If that’s so, then when the election produced such strong support for the candidate aligned with Morales and his party, they may have been psychologically as well as practically unprepared to do anything but accept the outcome (and that feeling could, of course, have been combined with a lot of sincere commitment to democratic principle–the two are fully compatible).

    One question which that scenario raises is how it’s possible that the opponents of Morales, the ones who forced him out, misjudged to that extent. Another question is why, if support for Morales was so strong, it couldn’t prevent his being forced from office. One possible answer to both questions is that opposition to Morales is concentrated among the economically secure section of a geographically concentrated urban population, while support for Morales is strongest among the rural indigenous poor, and that there is little contact between the two sections of the population. I don’t know that to be true of Bolivia, but if it were it could explain a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that all makes sense to me. In most countries, when there’s an urban vs rural divide in political behavior, it’s the urban population that’s more progressive or left-wing and the rural population that’s more reactionary. Hence you get revolutionary upheavals driven by the urban masses, even when the weight of peasant opinion in the countryside is against them. But in Latin America it tends to be the other way around; there isn’t much of an industrial proletariat, and the left’s base is more in the rural indigenous population. In Bolivia that’s also geographical between highlands & lowlands, and it may be, as you say, that there’s not a lot of contact between them, which allowed the wealthier classes to badly misread the situation.


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