So the Nos have it in Bolivia.
In the referendum asking whether a president and vice president can run for a third term for reelection in 2019, the vote was No -51.31% to YES -49.69%. A small margin of 2.62 points but still a win. What happened and what now? Below is my take.
The administration led by President Evo Morales thought it had a win with the strong support of social movements and rural people, but it misjudged the wide feeling among many, even if they were not strongly against this administration, that ten years is enough for any government. Evo and his party also had to confront the revelation of a couple of scandals in the last days leading up to the referendum. One involved a former girlfriend of Evo’s. She happens to be an executive in a big Chinese construction company that won lots of contracts to build roads in the country. The other scandal was the revelation of corruption in a multi million-dollar government fund allocated for projects in indigenous communities. Many of the projects turned out to be phantasms.
But this referendum was not the win of an opposition party or even a unified movement. It was solely about this one issue of not changing the constitution to allow for another run in 2019. The opposition in Bolivia is, in the words of one commentator, an abstraction. It consists of multiple factions none of which have the national support of the official party. Individual reasons for voting “No” were varied and reflected a wide divergence of political positions. The overall motive was to strengthen the institution of a democratic form of government.
While the government spent loads of money on ads in traditional media, it took a big hit on social networks which were not as regulated with regards to campaign rhetoric. Apparently the opposition played dirty in spinning a number of false statements and images about Evo and the government on social media. In the end, these messages had an impact, especially among the young.
Evo initially accepted the results and said he looked forward to going back to the tropical area outside of Cochabamba to work his farm and play football (soccer). Later, he indicated that he had lost a battle but not the war. Nonetheless, this referendum has come as a jolt to him and his Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS) party. They now have a huge challenge in the next four years to consolidate the many factions within the party and to come up with a candidate with the charisma and name recognition of Evo—who had became sort of a brand name for the country since 2006 when he first took office. Evo has indicated he does not want the party to deal with choosing a candidate until 2018.
One strong candidate from the MAS party would be David Choquehuanca, the foreign minister, who has been in office since Evo’s first term. He has strong ties with the indigenous social movements and has received high marks for his handling of foreign affairs. The problem is that the party has been very vertical in its structure and has not tolerated much diversity of opinion. In fact, many capable people who began with the party ten years ago have left it in recent years.
Other possible candidates for the 2019 election could be some of the disillusioned former members of MAS. A figure like Carlos Mesa, a respected journalist, who served for a short time as president before Evo, might also run. So too might the present mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla. The problem is that none of these candidates is connected to a movement or party that has the national scope of the MAS.
It is doubtful that candidates from the old die-hard neoliberal opposition would have a chance either. For one thing, there is a consensus that the county will never return to a pre-Evo state. For all the disagreement with this government it is recognized that the country has advanced under Evo’s leadership and some structures and policies put in place by his administration have moved the country forward for the better, especially for the majority of indigenous citizens.
What does this all then say about a government with the strong backing of social movements?
I believe well organized and focused social movements can take power, but in doing so they need to have the capacity to be a government for all, to know how to give and take in a politics that has the overall interests of the common good. They cannot be a kitchen cabinet outside of the government. Rather, they must know how to work within the messy infrastructure of democratic processes.
As Pope Francis said in Mexico, a sound society is one in which the key players know that they have to give as well as take, that to negotiate is to lose something so that all can win for the good of the whole. The MAS was not prepared to govern like that and has paid the price of losing some of its best supporters who were not willing to give it total almost eternal control.
Evo and his party have four years to leave an inheritance that builds on the good they have done and serves the long-term interests of the country or go down in history as sore losers who revealed that in the end they only had their own interests in mind.
Post by Father Eugene W. Toland. He is a Catholic priest with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and has been living and working in Bolivia, on and off since 1971. Read about the talk he gave at CoLab in January 2016 here.