Bolivians took part on Sunday in one of the country’s most decisive and historic general elections, in which the former governing party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and its candidate Luis Arce garnered a resounding victory. The vote culminated nearly 12 months of instability since elections in October 2019 led to allegations of fraud, followed by massive street protests and the departure of former President Evo Morales after nearly 14 years in power. Bolivia has not experienced a peaceful transition of power since 2002, but a window of opportunity has opened for the ethnically diverse Andean nation to emerge from the paralyzing polarization that has plagued it over the past years.
Despite a 2016 referendum defeat on the possibility of a third re-election, last year Morales forged ahead as the MAS candidate in the face of significant domestic and international consternation. When results were questioned by the Organization of American States’ (OAS) monitoring mission, middle-class activists organized mass mobilizations that were supported by the army and police to ultimately force the charismatic leftist leader into exile. This led to the establishment of a transitional government presided over by little-known lawmaker Jeanine Añez. The post-election crackdown by the security forces left 30 dead and more than 800 injured in its wake, alongside deep fissures and concerns of the risk of civil war.
Originally slated for May 3, the re-run election was postponed on two subsequent occasions as Bolivia suffered one of the continent’s most grueling COVID-19 outbreaks. To date, over 8,400 of 11.6 million Bolivians have died of the virus. Meanwhile the economy has contracted nearly 8 percent, with unemployment skyrocketing to almost 12 percent as a result of the six months of national quarantine enforced by the Añez administration. The 2019 political crisis, along with the pandemic’s economic and public health devastation has further compounded Bolivia’s long-standing ethnic, economic, and geographic cleavages. Deep-seated tensions remain more palpable than ever between the financial clout of European descendants in the eastern tropical lowlands and that of the more impoverished majority indigenous population in the Andean region.
Polarization and Political Violence
In the months leading up to the vote most Bolivians anticipated significant unrest with many stockpiling food and supplies. The stress from the lengthy national quarantine exacerbated political animosities and social tensions. With campaign rhetoric leaning heavily on resentments and fears, all parties prepared for mass mobilization upon the publication of the results. Amid conjecture that a head-to-head runoff would favor the centrist former president Carlos Mesa, MAS supporters feared that their opponents would not accept a first-round defeat and promised to retake power on the streets.
Despite initial commitments to serving as a peaceful caretaker government, Añez’s administration was alleged to have undertaken widespread persecution of MAS supporters. Some of her ministers viewed the period as an opportunity to “purge” the country and dismantle MAS’ political power. The minister of the interior announced plans to massively deploy the armed forces to defend democracy “at whatever price,” should MAS contest the results. Añez even sought to charge Arce with corruption during his time as economy minister to disqualify him from running.
Conversely, countrywide road blockades—spearheaded by MAS supporters and affiliated groups—in August protesting the postponement of the elections generated significant blowback, providing a clear target for violence by right-wing paramilitary groups. Many anti-Morales protesters, who led street protests in 2019 and experienced enormous elation upon his departure of Morales feared they would be victims of reprisals if MAS were to return to power.
The U.N. documented a series of incidents of violence, inflammatory language, and threats during the campaign period and called on Bolivians to seize the opportunity to “defuse the extreme polarization” of the country. Tensions mounted in the days leading up to the vote when Arce questioned the transparency of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), who announced that they would not publish partial rapid results until the completion of all counting.
Despite all these causes for alarm, Election Day itself was remarkably peaceful as Bolivians largely respected pandemic protocols by patiently waiting in long lines throughout the country. Añez, the TSE, and the new OAS Mission—whose deployment deepened suspicions after their alleged partiality in 2019—all congratulated the Bolivian people for the peaceful and participatory process.
Understanding Arce’s Surprising Victory
While most polls leading up to Sunday’s vote indicated a runoff was nearly inevitable, Arce’s resounding first-round victory can be attributed to several factors. First, he benefited from the broad popular rebuke of the transitional government, which was perceived as incompetent, authoritarian, and regressive. Many Bolivians were particularly frustrated by Añez’s handing of the pandemic, her overt political promotion of Christian symbols and “exorcism” of indigenous beliefs in the Presidential Palace, and the prosecution of Morales supporters which largely backfired, serving to undermine the credibility of the anti-MAS political leadership as a whole.
Secondly, the vote essentially boiled down to a referendum on whether MAS should return to power. For Morales’ party, it was an opportunity to vindicate the narrative that he was the victim of a coup. In the face of political persecution and symbolic acts of disdain for indigenous culture, many Bolivians longed for a return to the sense of dignity, self-esteem, and inclusion that they experienced in recent years as Morales developed the symbols and structure of the “plurinational republic.” Many indigenous leaders feared a permanent return to the Euro-centric Bolivia of the past, from which they were marginalized.
Finally, the prolonged crisis led to the progressive loss of legitimacy for Bolivian institutions and a generalized crisis fatigue. Añez refused to promulgate laws passed by the MAS-led legislature, which itself had run a full nine months beyond its mandate. The August nationwide blockades demonstrated the capacity of MAS and affiliated groups to grind the country to a halt in in the robust defense of their interests in the event of a contested electoral outcome. In this context, voters seem to have expressed a preference for stability and the candidate who could tackle the compounding public health and economic crises.
The technocratic and even-keeled Arce, who oversaw unprecedented economic growth and poverty alleviation, represented a more appealing alternative to Morales than even the centrist Mesa. Arce was the first ever MAS candidate to take part in a public debate engaging respectfully with Mesa and the far-right Luis Carlos Camacho whose pejorative and divisive rhetoric toward Bolivia’s indigenous was largely rejected.
Cause for Optimism in the Near Term?
With MAS’ landslide victory averting the deepening polarization inherent in a contested runoff, Bolivia now has a unique opportunity to overcome its deep divisions and recover some degree of national unity and cohesiveness in the face of a once-in-a-generation pandemic.
These aspirations echoed statements made during the campaign period by Mesa regarding the need for a “national accord which included MAS,” and those of Morales himself who called to “put aside differences and sectoral and regional interests to achieve a great national agreement.”
Many analysts believe that Arce will be able to emerge from Morales’ shadow leading a new era of technocratic and reconciliatory leadership. After cautiously criticizing his predecessor during the campaign, Arce has promised that he would not influence the judicial cases against Morales or allow the latter to interfere in his administration.
In a joint statement, the EU, the U.N., and the Catholic Church asserted that “the capacity to dialogue and reach agreements should be their primary instrument so that, in an environment of unity and respect, Bolivians can resolve contentious issues and overcome political polarization.” In this spirit, over the course of the establishment of the new MAS government under Arce, Bolivians should labor to resurrect their own historic dialogue mechanisms—long abandoned during the Morales era—to slowly build the foundations of national consensus so that these surprisingly peaceful elections may truly pave the way for greater stability and collective resilience at this historic juncture.