Bolivia president blames ‘conspiracy’ for loss – but weary voters may be to blame

Jonathan Watts writes for The Guardian:

Bolivia president blames ‘conspiracy’ for loss – but weary voters may be to blame

Rather than a broad ideological shift or dirty tactics by the opposition, Evo Morales’s defeat probably has more to do with scandals and rising expectations.

Another election, another loss for a leftwing government in Latin America.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 10.37.11 AMBolivia’s President Evo Morales finally accepted a referendum defeat on Wednesday, three days after the initial vote.

At first sight, the result appears to be the latest sign of an ebbing of the “pink tide” that swept through the region in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But rather than a broad ideological shift, the latest polling setback probably has more to do with specific scandals, voter fatigue, rising expectations and deteriorating economic prospects.

Bolivia’s longest-serving president had been hoping to secure approval on Sunday for a constitutional revision that would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term. But voters were uneasy at the prospect of leaving him in power until 2025. After a prolonged count, the country’s electoral commission ruled that the proposal had been rejected by 51% to 49% – a margin of 160,000 votes.

The president – who won landslides in each of his previous three elections – grudgingly conceded defeat with more than 99% of the results confirmed, but vowed to fight on. “We lost a democratic battle but not the war,” he told a news conference, blaming his defeat on an “external conspiracy” and dirty tactics by the opposition.

This is a blow not just for the former indigenous activist and his Movement to Socialism (Mas) coalition, but for the wider progressive populist movement in the region. Since coming to power in 2006, Morales has been a staunch ally of fellow leftwing leaders in Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua and one of the most outspoken critics of the United States and neoliberal capitalism.

He had also seemed the most resilient of his contemporaries. While Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s party lost power in Argentina and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro saw their ratings plunge amid corruption allegations and accusations of economic mismanagement, Morales had remained extremely popular and Bolivia’s economy continued to grow. As recently as a month ago, polls suggested he would win the referendum handily.

That he has now suffered his biggest electoral defeat is the result of a combination of personal, temporal and regional factors. The most explosive of them was the revelation towards the end of the campaign that Morales had fathered a child with a woman who is now employed as a lobbyist by a Chinese engineering company that has won hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts from the Bolivian state. This raised questions about influence peddling, personal ethics and the growing reliance on China in the Andean nation. While Morales denied wrongdoing, the accusations undoubtedly tarnished his image.

Meanwhile, falling global commodity prices caused the economy to slow after growing at an annual clip of more than 5% for most of the past decade. While most voters are much better off than they were when Morales came to power, expectations now arguably rise faster than GDP. This appears particularly true among the Aymara and Quechua communities that are the traditional base of support for the president. A recent study indicated that such indigenous communities have not benefited as much as the wider population in Bolivia’s economic boom.

Allegations of creeping authoritarianism were also a concern. Several voters interviewed by the Guardian in La Paz said they had supported Morales in previous elections and admired what he had done to reduce poverty and boost the economy, but they felt it would be unhealthy for him to stay in office for almost 20 years.

Opposition accusations that Morales is becoming a demagogue were not consistent with his acceptance of the result. In the wake of his biggest defeat, the country is calm. But there is a concern that his government – like those of his counterparts – may increasingly struggle to deliver the longer it remains in power.

Michael Shifter, president of the US-based Inter-American Dialogue thinktank, attributed the current wave of defeats for the left in Latin America to a rejection of tired governments.

“They have all been there for a long time. It is natural for there to be an exhaustion factor and desire for change,” he said. “It will be the same for any new governments. If they don’t deliver, they will pay the price.”

This weariness factor, he said, is more significant than any fundamental change in the political agenda.

“I don’t think Latin American voters are turning to the right. They are just being pragmatic. Their expectations are higher and they are not being satisfied. But the enduring legacy of the leftist tide is a social agenda that will be a lasting concern. Whoever succeeds Evo, we will not see a return to neoliberal policies and discrimination against indigenous minorities.”

With more than three years remaining in office, the question now is what Morales does next. He clearly feels he has the stamina and motive to continue, as he told the Guardian in a recent interview. He also believes that he and his country – like his counterparts in Venezuela and Argentina – are “under attack” from the US and other capitalist nations.

This combative outlook may prompt him to mount another constitutional challenge, but he would be better advised to cement his legacy by grooming a successor and putting in place institutions that can carry forward the best of his ideas. Such continuity has been beyond many of his charismatic predecessors and regional counterparts, but it would define his presidency as something that went beyond the good intentions of a social activist and the good luck of a leader who benefited from a resource boom.

But Morales was reluctant on Wednesday to look beyond his own presidency.

“It’s not the moment to speak of a successor. There is a lot of time for that,” he told reporters.

My opinion: the coca grower’s relentless egocentrism will turn to be his political death! And that is good for Bolivia!

Published by Bolivian Thoughts

Senior managerial experience on sustainable development projects.

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