The Financial Express

Bolivian election 2020: Political reset to restore democracy

| Updated: October 31, 2020 21:50:15

Bolivian election 2020: Political reset to restore democracy

Luis Arce won 55.1 per cent of the votes  in the presidential election held on October 18 against six rival candidates including a former President. This election victory  provided vindication for the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), the party of former President Evo Morales who was ousted in a military coup on November 10, 2019 and now lives in exile in Argentina.  Mr. Arce's landslide victory left no room to contest the results or the need for a runoff election. He will assume office on November 8.

The coup against President Morales was orchestrated by the US. Now the landslide victory of Mr. Arce as the candidate representing the party of  Evo Morales, MAS, puts the US machinations of fomenting coups and regime changes in Bolivia or more widely in Latin America  into the reverse gear at least for the moment. In fact, the electoral victory of Mr. Arce under the banner of MAS is seen as a victory for Latin America's Left. The return to power of MAS in Bolivia is celebrated by its Latin American allies.

Bolivia has been in a state of crisis since the ousting of President Morales. Bolivia also remains the most impoverished country in South America. Since the days of the conquistadors, Bolivia has been ruled by the white European elite. The country  has also a long history of coups most often conducted by the military. Evo Morales took office as President in 2006 and he was the first President of Bolivia who came from the indigenous population who constitute 47 per cent of the country's population. The main reason for the MAS victory in this election lies in the popularity of its policies compared to the US backed coup regime which overthrew President Morales.

Under President Morales, Bolivia achieved a steady 4.5 per cent growth rate, a spectacular growth performance of the economy he inherited. Real per capita income grew by more than 50 per cent over the  13 years of his presidency, double the rate in the region. Poverty  fell from 60 per cent to  35 per cent in 2017. Unemployment in Bolivia almost halved from 7.7 per cent to 4.4 per cent. Minimum monthly wages tripled. Bolivia successfully lifted many out of poverty and illiteracy under President Morales's leadership.

President Morales significantly increased state revenue by nationalising the natural gas industry. The increased revenue earnings were used for public investments and building social safety nets thus improving millions of lives.  The World Bank also recognised that. Since President Morales came to power the share of population living on less than US$1.90 a day has dropped by two thirds to 6 per cent. It was  made possible by profits from exports of nationalised gas redistributed to the poor.

In the wake of President Evo Morales' exit, Jeanine Anez declared herself as President with the support of the coup leaders. Also, Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) which is mostly funded by the US and based in Washington played a very crucial role in precipitating a political crisis to enable the army to stage the coup.

During Ms Anez's one year tenure as the head of the coup regime, security forces massacred dozens of indigenous MAS supporters.  In fact, racism against the indigenous people became quite overt on the streets coupled with state violence exacerbating their economic misery. Charges of terrorism and sedition were brought against the opponent of the coup regime. The cabinet did not include even one minister from the indigenous community of the country, who constitutes almost close to half of the population. She has also made major changes to economic and social policies signalling the intention to pursue increased privatisation and austerity and deported 700 Cuban doctors who were providing health care. 

President elect Luis Arce has received one of the biggest electoral mandates in Bolivian history with 88 per cent voter turn-out, one of the highest in Latin America in this century. His main rival former President Carlos Mesa and also a think-tank fellow in Washington trailed in second position with close to 29 per cent of the votes. Further trailing behind  in the polls was Luis Fernando Comacho, the Bible thumping ultra-right fascist leader who played the decisive role in the overthrow of President Morales. He received only 14 per cent of the vote. Jeanine Anez, the US backed far right evangelical self-proclaimed President after the overthrow of President Morales, bowed out of the Presidential race last month while trailing very badly in polls.

Luis Arce's electoral victory is also a major endorsement of MAS policies and achievements during its 13 years in power. He has promised to "rebuild" Bolivia after his huge election victory and said "now our great challenge is to rebuild our homeland in peace, to regain joy, stability and hope for a better tomorrow for all Bolivians". He then further added "We won't let down the trust that people have placed in us".

Max Blumenthal, the American author and journalist told  PJ Eskow of the Zero Hour  in a television interview that while it was time for hope referring to the MAS election victory, there were underlying fears and trepidations for so many reasons. He further added that there is fear and speculation that  attempts might be made to co-opt  Mr Arce by the  US backed forces like the way Lenin Moreno has been co-opted in Ecuador. But he believes that is unlikely to happen given the power structure of MAS, the party Mr. Arce belongs to and more importantly he already declared that he would be one term President. He also declared that he would re-establish relations with Cuba and Venezuela which were cut-off by the coup regime.

Luis Arce was finance minister in the Morales administration for more than a decade  which led to an extended period of economic boom.  He also worked for the Bolivian Central Bank. As minister of Finance he oversaw the nationalisation of mining, gas and telecommunication industries and helped to launch  a bank and a dedicated fund for regional and infrastructural development.  MAS also won majorities in the both houses of Congress but failed to gain two thirds majority to effect any changes to the constitution without support from opposition parties.

The outright win for the socialists will cause not only a major reversal of  fortune of deeply entrenched powers in Bolivia but also marks a major victory for the Latin America Left movement. Fernando Lugo, President of Paraguay, also overthrown in a coup in 2012, celebrated the victory and echoing the sentiment of other left oriented leaders of Latin America declared, "This enormous triumph is a beacon of example and hope for all of our America!" In fact, the return of MAS to power in Bolivia is being celebrated by its Latin American counterparts as a political turning point in the region.

But President elect Arce will face daunting challenges in the days ahead, a country not only polarised  and further exacerbated by the 2019 coup against President Morales but also the worsening Covid-19 pandemic situation. Such a worsening pandemic  situation  has been caused by disdain for the Cocvd-19 victims by the head of the coup regime  and a corrupt health care delivery system. In fact, the health minister of the coup regime  Marcelo Navajas was arrested as part of an investigation into alleged corruption involving ventilator purchases. Bolivia has the third highest per capita death rate from the pandemic in the world.

President elect Arce also faces formidable economic challenges. Bolivia still remains a poor country and a resource based economy dependent on lithium. Since the 1990s there has been a drive towards more electric cars which can help  to improve air quality thus reversing the process of climate change. These electric cars need battery and battery needs lithium. This led to the speculation of a boom in the demand for lithium-- the white petroleum.

The US government's list of strategic minerals includes 35 minerals, of which lithium is one. Bolivia is home to 70 per cent  of world's lithium reserve. This has placed Bolivia squarely into cold war between China and the US in the context of access to green energy. The coup against President Morales has to be also understood in the context of increasingly intensifying cold war between the US and China. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, the largest electric car manufacturer has vital interest in having access to lithium by any means, even if that means staging a coup and already  said, "We will coup whoever we want'' referring to the military coup against President Morales.

As one commentator made a cryptic comment that the US green foreign policy has now led to lithium regime change replacing petroleum regime change. Indeed, some even welcomed the coup as an opportunity to reorganise the resources that has been put in place in Bolivia by the Morales administration so as to speed up the efforts to attract multinational mining firms, in particular from Germany and the US  to mine lithium to forestall the possibility of  any Chinese firm's  bid for mining lithium.

Despite introducing many progressive economic changes, achieving significant economic gains and  in reducing poverty during MAS's 13 years of  governance, the Bolivian economy still remains dependent on the mining and primary industries.  President elect Arce's and his party MAS  also face weak institutions incapable of undertaking any sweeping economic and social programmes to further reduce economic and social inequities. In fact, he faces a  dire situation, all inherited and the journey ahead remains very challenging in a situation of extreme instability in the country. In a media interview he did declare his resolve to reactivate the economy in which import substitution would play an important part. Notwithstanding Mr, Arce's economic nationalistic rhetoric, his prior long experience and solid performance as finance minister under the Morales administration may inspire optimism.

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