A Look Ahead at Bolivia's Three Presidential Elections
Here is some analysis and predictions about where things stand with not just one Presidential election coming up here, but in reality, a series of three important decision points that will determine the immediate political future of this politically fragile country.
On December 4th Bolivians will have eight official President/Vice-President tickets to choose from. However, in reality these are the ones that matter (in roughly the order they are now running in public opinion polls):
MAS, Evo Morales and Alvaro Garcia Linera: Bolivia's "Movement Toward Socialism" party, led by the leader of the coca grower's union, Evo Morales (who came within a percentage point of finishing first in 2002) is teamed up with Garcia Linera, a well-known political analyst from the left.
PODEMOS, Jorge Quiroga and Maria Rene Duchen: The former President who served out the last year of former dictator Hugo Banzer's last elected term is teamed up with a well-known, woman, TV newscaster.
UN, Samuel Doria Medina and Carlos Fernando Dabdoub: Unidad Nacional is essentially the old MIR party reincarnated, led by the owner of Burger King Bolivia, among other large enterprises, and Dabdoub, a leader in the Santa Cruz "autonomy" movement.
NFR, Gildo Angulo Cabrera and Gonzalo Quiroga: The political party of former Cochabamba Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa (who finished a strong third in the Presidential vote in 2002) is led by two unknowns, as Manfred opts for a surer thing and runs for governor of the department of Cochabamba rather than President.
MNR, Michiaki Nagatani Morishita and Guillermo Bedregal Gutierrez: The former political party powerhouse of the 1952 revolution and party of ousted President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, has fallen from finishing first place in 2002 to being a marginal force led by a Santa Cruz politician known mostly for being of Japanese decent.
MIP, Felipe Quispe and Camila Choqueticlla Mamani: The most visible indigenous leader of the Altiplano ran poorly in 2002 and is overshadowed this year by a strengthened Morales candidacy.
Election One: The Popular Vote
The first key decision point is the popular Presidential vote on December 4th. Here's how that looks, an analysis based on pure political handicapping not an assessment of each leader's personal qualities.
Evo Morales looks much stronger than he did a few months ago for several reasons. First, unlike in 2002, he really has the political left and the rural vote, two important political bases, much to himself. The race for first place is clearly only between Morales, Medina and Quiroga. The MNR and NFR might win 5% each and Quispe probably won’t hit more than 3%. Second, Morales has successfully shored up his political base on the left, by bringing Garcia Linera on the ticket as a representative of Bolivia fractious social movements. That move helped preempt a series of regional candidacies that threatened to divide Morales' base, for example the expected then abandoned candidacy of Abel Mamani, leader of the neighborhood groups in El Alto. Now the El Alto groups are lined up behind MAS.
Quiroga looked like an early front-runner, running a slick, well-financed campaign that has already turned a good number of concrete walls in my neighborhood bright red with his campaign colors. He is running a very US-style campaign, presenting himself as moderate and experienced leader who can unite Bolivia and run a competent government that will attract foreign investment. Unfortunately for him, his message sounds too much like that of the deposed Sanchez de Lozada. Quiroga also has to compete for the right-center, middle-class base with an aggressive and well-funded Samuel Doria Medina.
Medina has a history that makes him seem either invincible or really lucky. In the 1990s he was kidnapped by a guerilla organization and ultimately released. Last year he survived a plane crash and walked away. Medina looks hungry and determined, jumping the gun with television advertising before the legal starting line. He also worked to build himself a base early in Santa Cruz, by picking a champion of the autonomy movement there as his running mate. He acts like a man who has been waiting in line to run for president longer than he has wanted to and going all out now. In politics, hunger matters.
If you add up the math, it is now quite possible to see a scenario in which Morales finishes in first place, and perhaps a strong first place. I think that his 2002 base of 22% is solid and there is plenty of room for him to build on that. For example, my friend Adela told me today that she plans to vote for Evo. In 2002 she supported NFR and Manfred. I think there are a lot of voters who may do the same. If Morales could get the US ambassador to denounce him in the run up to the vote, as the previous ambassador did in 2002, he might do even better.
Election Two: The Presidential Selection Vote in the Bolivian Congress
Under the Bolivian constitution, the winner of the presidency is not the first place winner in the popular vote, but the candidate able to secure 51% or more of the subsequent vote in the national Congress. Seats in the Congress are apportioned roughly according to the popular vote received by each political party's presidential candidate. The new Congress then meets in a joint session and, member-by-member, they cast their votes for President. It is a pretty dramatic event to watch as 157 Congress members cast their votes, each making a speech in the process. The 2002 vote lasted more than 30 hours and was televised live throughout the night.
What all this means is that no candidate is likely to come anywhere close to 51% of the vote on December 4th, setting off an immediate and high-stakes game of political jockeying aimed at knitting together a coalition that can assemble 51%. To be clear, this is not a negotiation over public policy ("we'll compromise on gas if you compromise on land rights, etc."). Nope this is straight up wheeling and dealing over securing government jobs for each party's backers, from seats in the cabinet to clerk jobs in the post office. And in the background you can count on the US Embassy working hard, pressing for "anyone but Evo."
This is where Morales, even if he finishes in first place, is likely to be shut out of the presidency. I can always be wrong but I don't see any possible alliance that can help MAS bridge the gap between what they win Dec. 4th and 51%.
The most likely governing coalition would join together Quiroga, Medina, and the weakened MNR and NFR. Quiroga painted himself into a corner at the start of the campaign, declaring that he would not take the presidency if he did not finish in first place. He might come to regret that. Medina has made no such pledge. In Bolivia, however, as elsewhere, political promises are pretty flexible. I expect that the race between Quiroga and Medina, even if it turns out to be for second place, will become the race for who is selected by the Congress.
So, Bolivia is headed, quite probably, toward the scenario of historically putting an indigenous socialist in first place at the polls, only to end up with a President who spent much of his professional life working for IBM in Texas or one who runs Burger King. Neither is a recipe for political consensus or stability, thus setting up round three.
Election Three: Can the New President Survive?
I see no scenario, post-election, that promises much in the way of a solid political path forward. I see several that could dissolve into violent confrontation.
Suppose, for example, that Morales comes in first, or even a strong second (as in 2002) and Quiroga becomes President in January. It is only a matter of time before the ever-so-brief political honeymoon comes to an end and the new President and the social movements arrive at a point of confrontation. The most likely issues to spark this would be over the demanded "constituent assembly" to rewrite the constitution, a battle over a new gas law, or aggressive new efforts to eradicate coca.
As before, the social movements, especially in the altiplano and El Alto, will blockade highways to press their demands. But unlike Carlos Mesa, who refused steadfastly to send out troops to fire on civilians, Quiroga will take to the airwaves. "My fellow Bolivians, they contested the election, they lost the election and they have no right to shut down our country. We will take the steps necessary to keep the economy of our country moving forward."
Quiroga demonstrated in his brief year as President in 2001-2002 that he is not shy to use the bullet, with more than a dozen Bolivians killed by government force. With the US Embassy likely offering private words of encouragement and public declarations of support (as it did with both Banzer and Goni), the troops will move to the streets and we will be back to the violence of February and October of 2003 in which more than eighty people lost their lives.
Alternatively, suppose that by some unexpected combination of events Evo Morales manages to win election to the Presidency. The scenario there is not much more promising. MAS would enter poorly prepared to govern, sitting on a mountain of pent-up expectations of what a new government can deliver, and with the prospect of being blacklisted for aid from the US government, the World Bank and the IMF. More than one solid analyst on the left has said to me in private – What happens if foreign aid is cutoff and three months into his term Evo is facing down striking police in the streets because they haven't been paid?
In short, Bolivia faces a third Presidential decision point early on in the new government. Will the new President, be it Quiroga, Morales or Medina, be able to survive the division, conflict, and raw economic pressures that have brought Bolivia to the political brink over and over again for the past three years?
As I have written before, the upcoming elections are not a solution to the conflicts Bolivia faces. The elections are merely a postponement of those conflicts to the new year.
All this said, elections anywhere, and in Bolivia especially, have a tendency to surprise us. A lot can happen between now and December 4th. Stay tuned to this Blog as we will do our best to keep you well informed.