Monday, April 5, 2010

Evo no MAS? An analysis of Bolivia's local elections, 4th April 2010

Elections for mayors and governors across Bolivia have just concluded. Movimiento Al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism), the party of President Evo Morales, made gains across the country but it was a far cry from his sweeping 63% victory in the presidential elections just 4 months earlier. There were no major surprises in the passionately anti-Morales east, which was won by the traditional opposition parties, the only exception being Pando. The much more illuminating results were those from Evo’s traditional strongholds, El Alto and La Paz.

El Alto is a bastion for Evo and MAS. It’s a sprawling, disorganised and densely populated city that looks down on La Paz from the edge of the Antiplano. The ever growing population of El Alto is primarily made up of the decedents of migrants who left the countryside to earn a better living in the city and they are constantly being joined by new migrants doing the same. It’s poor, it’s Aymaran, and it’s Evo through and through. Well, until tonight that is. 90+% of El Alto backed Evo in the December 09 presidential elections but this time the mayoral candidate for MAS, Edgar Patana, got just 36%, winning by a margin of just 4%. Evo’s party doesn't have a majority in the local government that propelled him to two-thirds control of the national parliament. Analysts from the opposition channel, UNITEL, took this rejection as a sign of Evo’s failing policies. But this is grossly misleading.

Four months ago, Morales’ main presidential opposition was an old school right-wing politician, Mafred Reyes Villa, widely assumed to be corrupt and who, in the eyes of the Morales faithful, represented Bolivia’s tumultuous past. He fled to Miami days after losing the election to escape corruption charges. These latest elections have seen the emergence of a new opposition that, thankfully, is a completely different breed to the likes of Reyes-Villa. Runner up for mayor of El Alto with 32% of the vote was a twenty something newcomer to the political scene Soledad Chapéton. Like her fellow candidates, she’s a local Alteno. But unlike her older male MAS counterpart, who rested on his laurels assuming an easy victory, she campaigned from house to house, putting forward a fresh and credible message that resonated with those who voted for Evo last December. She’s definitely one to watch in the future and her appearance on the political scene is a sign of a healthy democracy in Bolivia.

Similarly, in La Paz, a new socialist party is offering a serious alternative to Evo's MAS. The incumbent mayor of La Paz, Juan del Granado’s Movimiento Sin Miedo (Movement Without Fear) was popularised after a very public falling out with Evo Morales. MSM overturned the opinion polls and won the all important mayor’s office in La Paz. Despite being no spring chicken, the charismatic and popular del Granado is already being tipped as a potential presidential candidate in 5 years time. The new mayor, Luis Revilla, was simply much more credible than the candidate shipped in by Evo. His candidate, Elizabeth Salguero, had no experience, barely knew La Paz and according to people close to her, didn’t even like cities! Pacenos didn't appreciate Evo forcing this highly inappropriate candidate upon them.

Evo’s response to the disappointing results and the emergence of new political foes was positive. He affirmed the formation of political parties as a constitutional right of all Bolivians and welcomed the appearance of the new challengers. Bolivia’s democracy has been strengthened by Evo’s new constitution. Controls now in place make election fraud extremely difficult. His government recently passed much needed anti-corruption laws. However, having laid the foundations for a healthy democracy, it remains to be seen whether Evo can work constructively with the new parties, especially MSM, given the bad blood with its leader. He's not scared of bringing in new (especially female) candidates into the party and may consider trying to poach Soledad Chápeton as a shortcut to solving his problems. But many analysts point to the lack of new leaders in his party as evidence that Evo doesn't want serious challengers to emerge. A common complaint from the Evo faithful is that, although they trust him, they don't trust the people around him. His middle class supporters dislike his increasingly confrontational and belligerent style. If Evo wants to regain the support of his traditional base, he needs to listen to what the Bolivian people have told him via these elections.

***Update 9th April 2010

My El Alto contacts insist that Soledad Chápeton's strong performance in the election was more a protest vote against the unpopular MAS candidate, Edgar Patana, than evidence of her popularity

© 2010 by The Veins of Latin America

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