Bolivia: A Democratic Revolution–or some other kind?

It looks like Evo Morales may have won over 50% of the vote after all, in which case he would be president-elect. Even if he turns out to have just missed a majority, the lead is so strong that the vote in congress would be a simple formal ratification, and not a real horse-trading session, as has been the case after previous elections.

Bolivia has a majority indigenous population, yet it has never had an indigenous president before. Morales is the founder of a relatively new political party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) that has its roots in a social movement among the indigenous peasantry and coca growers. Now he will be president. This is clearly a democratic revolution, in the sense of a turning of power over to a long-excluded group. But where will Morales lead Bolivia? Could this election mark the beginnings of a deeper and less democratic revolution, as seems to be occurring in Venezuela since the election of Hugo Chávez Frías in 1998? (I addressed this question previously, back in October, but it seems a lot has changed suddenly!)

To attempt an answer to that question requires putting the two countries in context. Bolivia has a more institutionalized democracy today than Venezuela had by 1998–and anyone who knows the previous trajectory of these two countries will appreciate how ironic a statement that is! In the quarter century since democracy was restored in Bolivia, power has alternated peacefully six times already (not counting the recent inter-election turnovers, which have also been relatively peaceful, if irregular). Bolivia has had a multiparty system in which cross-party coalitions have been necessary to govern. This democratic space allowed Morales to organize his followers, establish a legal political party, compete in elections, hold seats in the legislature–and bring his followers into the streets seeking recognition of their long-suppressed demands. By contrast, by 1998 the once seemingly solid Venezuelan democracy was in full collapse, with the period after 1989 featuring two military coup attempts (one led by then- Lt. Col. Chávez himself), mass violent rioting, and two successive presidents who attempted to govern without support in congress and in violation of civil liberties.

Chávez thus first attempted a military route to power, and then upon being elected six years later, he had almost no party backing whatsoever. In legislative elections a few months before he was elected president, Chávez’s hastily created Fifth Republic Movement won less than 20% of the vote, finishing almost five percentage points behind the predominant party of Venezuela’s democratic era, Acción Democrática. Thus, neither the newly elected “revolutionary” nor the main alternative, had strong electoral or congressional support.

Morales, by contrast, may have a majority in both houses of congress, or close to it. Congress is elected at the same time (and on the same ticket) as the president in Bolivia. The party he created, MAS, has steadily and dramatically built popular support. He was elected to congress in 1997. MAS and Morales won 21% of the vote in the 2002 election, which was good enough for a close second (to Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada’s 22.5%). Unlike Chávez, who came to power with strong personal support, but little initial organizational backing, Morales has both electoral experience and a broad social movement to call upon. In Sunday’s election, the runner-up, Tuto Quiroga’s PODEMOS, won a higher percentage of the vote than all but two leading candidates in elections since 1980, and did well in elections for regional posts. Thus, unlike in Venezuela, both the “revolutionary” and his main opposition have substantial electoral and congressional support—and the latter has a base in important regional departments.

In other words, in Bolivia, both the new government and its main opposition are consolidating their support, whereas in Venezuela, Chávez was just getting started politically when he was elected, while the alternative forces that could check him were disintegrating.

The election of Morales thus represents a maturation of a process that has been building for years. It is part of a remarkable evolution of democracy in Bolivia, historically one of Latin America’s least stable countries. Nonetheless, the rise of this majority creates a potential danger. This election–with a majority government backed by a social movement in a polarized society–represents a turning point in Bolivian democracy. Precisely where it will turn is very much an open question. The real risk is not so much Morales himself, but whether he can control his own movement–which will come to power with unrealistically high expectations—and how his opponents, based in the lowland departments where most of the country’s gas resources lie, will react.

Morales will be the first president since the restoration of democracy in 1980 to have an electoral mandate, as opposed to one derived from the various party caudillos bargaining over the spoils of office from their congressional power base. Leaving aside the election of 1978, which was quickly annulled, or the military-backed election of 1966, one could argue that this will be Bolivia’s first electoral mandate from a competitive election since 1951, when Victor Paz Estenssoro of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) defeated his closest opponent, 43-32.

For anyone who knows Bolivian history, the parallel is not encouraging. In April of 1952, the MNR, with the backing of a series of strikes by miners and urban workers, and backed by defecting elements of the national police, precipitated a revolution that quickly spread to include peasant uprisings and generated what remains one of Latin America’s greatest, if rather unsung, social and political upheavals of the 20th century. It inaugurated a brief period of single-party hegemony. In three subsequent elections, the MNR totally dominated its opposition. But then the MNR was ousted by a military coup in 1964, in one of the early ripples in the wave of repressive military rule that would wash over the continent in that decade and the next.

Partly in response to the MNR hegemonic period, Bolivian constitutions have subsequently bucked the prevailing model of presidentialism in the region and established instead a “parliamentarized presidentialism.” Under this hybrid form, congress selects the president when no candidate obtains a majority of the popular vote. Originally, congress was allowed to select from the top three vote-getters. Indeed, one president, Jaime Paz Zamora, was chosen by congress despite finishing third in the popular vote in 1989, with 22% of the vote. (In that election, future two-time president Sánchez de Losada, led with 25.8%, and ex-dictator and also future constitutional president Hugo Banzer Suárez had 25.4%.)

I said a few days ago that I felt the parliamentarized presidentialism model had served Bolivia relatively well, but that it might be time for a change to either pure presidentialism or pure parliamentarism. Either, I noted, would prevent the election of an extremist who was a Condorcet loser (on the assumption that in the pure presidential alternative, there would be a runoff election and not a president elected by plurality). When I wrote those words, I could not imagine that Morales would win over 40% of the vote, let alone a majority. As Miguel Centellas notes in a comment to my post on Bolivia from Sunday, Bolivia suddenly has a pure presidential system, because it just witnessed for the first time in over half a century a directly elected president in a competitive election. Obviously Morales was not a Condorcet loser after all!

Now the hard part begins. There is almost certain to be a constituent assembly to reassess Bolivian democracy from the ground up. It may include movements towards federalism, given that Morales’s opposition is regionally based, and that Sunday also featured the first-ever popular election of departmental governors. There is no guarantee that Morales and other political figures in Bolivia can navigate the difficult currents ahead. But there is no reason to expect a Chávez-like implosion. Bolivia does not have the institutional vacuum that led to Chávez’s election, and then facilitated his taking his government in a increasingly undemocratic revolutionary direction. Bolivia today has a much more institutionalized democracy than Venezuela had by 1998.

Some other blog roundups worth a read are:

Publius Pundit: “…There was nothing fraudulent about it, and voter turnout was an amazing 80%. […] But there is no question that this is not necessarily good news for the U.S.

boz: “If Morales tries to take a 50% win as a full mandate, he’ll quickly find himself shut down by the population. It is up to Morales to reach out to his opposition and to act as the president for all Bolivians, not just his supporters.” (Excerpted from boz’s excellent “five points.”)

16 thoughts on “Bolivia: A Democratic Revolution–or some other kind?

  1. A really elegant analysis, Matthew. I think I agree. The thing that is impressive to me is that Bolivia’s election was democratically and accountably done, and participation was quite high. All of that suggests faith and confidence, two often elusive things in Latin America. Having witnessed the Dec. 4 fiasco in Venezuela firsthand, this Bolivian exercise in democracy is kind of elating because it’s such a sharp contrast to Venezuela. The invisible architecture of the institutions and the accountability seem to be really there, so any crazy decision Morales makes as president will either be checked by his opponents, reversed by his successors, or lived with by his voters. The freedom is still there, no matter how bad Morales turns out to be. As long as that remains, I don’t feel terribly worried, at least not for now.

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  4. Excellent analysis. One minor caveat about MAS. While the party is relatively new (and I’m not sure I’d call it a party, as much as a coalition of social movements or something like that, it’s not truly an “institutionalized” party, but neither is PODEMOS or UN), it has long roots in the syndicalist traditions of parties like POR (Partido Obrero Revolucionario). Actually, many of the MAS leaders in the senate are still members of POR (a revolutionary Trotskyite party founded in the 1930s).

    Since 1985, several parties like POR (including the communists, the socialists, and a few others) joined in an alliance called IU (Izquierda Unida). They never did very well, but managed to stay alive. They were influential, though, especially in the universities. In 1997, they “lent” their party ID to the cocaleros (in part, because POR always had ties to the miners, and it was displaced miners who’d migrated to Chapare to grow coca), and Evo was elected an uninominal deputy from a Chapare district as an IU delegate. Since then, the cocaleros have more or less taken over IU and turned it into MAS, a broader social movement.

  5. Like Miguel, I also see MAS as more a coalition of social movements than an institutionalized party. However, I am queasy about that latter term: a movement that has a recognized label under which it competes in elections as well a mass base, is getting pretty close to institutionalized party notwithstanding its newness and dependence–so far, at least–on a ‘caudillo’ type leadership.

    Of course, my bigger point than MAS being “relatively new” was that it has existed and participated in both electoral politics and mass mobilization since well before Morales was elected–in stark contrast to the MVR and Chávez. So, your additional details support that differentiation between the two countries’ “revolutions.”

    MAS is new only as a lablel that serves as an umbrella for pre-existing parties and movements. Thanks for the information on how, and under what label, Morales first won a seat. I was unsure about that.

  6. From what I read in the papers, many of the candidates for uninominales, especially in El Alto, were chosen by the various neighborhood groups. I do not think Morales and other MAS leadership had much say in who they nominated.

    However, MAS does issue militante IDs, which is a part of an institutionalized party, right? It would be interesting to see which part of MAS operates as a political party and which part does not.

  7. If Morales had little control over the candidates nominated in the single-seat districts, then MMP is working just as it was supposed to! Ideally, the district deputies should be more attuned to local interests (because they are elected by the local electorate), yet aligned with a party list that transcends the district/local interests (because only parties/movements that present lists can participate in the PR allocation).

    On Eduardo’s second point, I believe that I haven’t ever seen the matter of militante IDs included in any discussion of party institutionalization.

  8. Actually, MAS didn’t exist until after Evo Morales entered politics. Since he was already elected in 1997 as an SSD deputy by IU. Since then, Morales & others (IU & syndicalist leaders) formed MAS. I would agree that MAS, despite its reliance on caudillo leadership, is more than just Evo (unlike, I think, Chavez’s MVR). But the frequent infighting between key members in MAS (such as the recent very ugly, public fight between Evo & Filemon Escobar, the POR leader & MAS senator). MAS has the potential to become an institutionalized party, as the MNR did, despite growing into a broader populist movement (as per Christopher Mitchell’s book on Bolivian politics). But I’m not entirely convinced that MAS is institutionalized quite yet. But that’s mostly a hindsight measure (whether a party is institutionalized or not), I suppose. And I’d like to see what the movement does in power first, to know whether it has the capacity to become a party like MNR or to disintegrate like the 1980s UDP alliance.

  9. I agree with Miguel that “institutionalization” is largely a matter of hindsight–do the party organization and the electoral value of its label outlast its founding leader?

    But there are indications that we can use before we get the answer to that question, and I think Miguel’s remarks that MAS is “more than just Evo” (and the contrast with Chávez’s MVR) point in the direction of a degree of institutionalization, even if it is not fully “there” yet.

    It is worth noting that institutionalization is not all or nothing, nor is it a one-way process. (It is also notoriously hard to define really precisely!)

  10. Just to underscore Shugart’s point here (and I agree w/ him). MAS is more than just a personalist vehicle, like MVR. MAS is a populist coalition of various social movements, many w/ competing agendas. Just today, the Bolivian papers had reports of a large corporatist assembly of pro-MAS groups (about 300 delegates) that met to push Evo towards appointing ministers etc in a form of power distribution among the corporate groups. So Evo is already facing pressures from *WITHIN* his own coalition. Something Chavez or Castro never really faced. Too many of international media observers focus too much on Evo, and assume he leads a large, consolidated, single party. He leads a coalition of labor unions, campesino syndicates, intellectuals, government workers’ unions, etc.

    I’m actually curious to see if Bolivia turns into a two-party system, something like the US. Where both parties (Dems & GOP) are more or less just flexible social coalitions of various interest groups that aling roughly left-of-center and right-of-center. The MAS-PODEMOS split seems to cut that way. And PODEMOS is also not a party, but a broad coalition of other unions, civic organizations, intellectuals, etc that are more right-of-center. It certainly would be interesting if we just get a large two-bloc system evolving out of this election.

  11. It indeed would be interesting if a two-bloc system began to emerge in Bolivia, and if did, it would further bring the party system and the new lower-house electoral system (MMP) into conformity. (The first way was discussed above, at comments 5&6.)

    I would not expect it to go all the way to strict two-partism, however, given that MMP is, after all PR, and thus will allow minorities to remain viable. Also, unless the provision for congressional selection of the president when there is no popular-vote majority is changed (and even more if it is, and replaced by a two-round popular vote), there would remain an incentive for smaller parties to remain active to bargain for support of the leading parties.

    But if the party system is consolidating into two main parties, it would be a good development, and more consistent with the combination of presidentialism and MMP.

  12. If the final results posted on the National Electoral Court’s website are official, Bolivia’s MMP system has just passed its first “sweep test” with flying colours:

    Previous elections have seen no party win a majority, so a congressional coalition would form a government and elect a president. But this time one party, MAS, got 53.74% of the vote, making Evo Morales president outright. With a single ballot for president and congress, and a proportional system, MAS should have 70 of the 130 deputies. But Bolivia’s MMP system has nine separate calculations, one in each self-contained province. There were two risks:

    1. Local sweeps by other parties could have deprived MAS of a majority. In the four provinces won by the more conservative PODEMOS, they might have swept the 26 local seats, 54% of the 48 seats from those provinces, with much less than 54% of the vote. With no German style-links between the provincial calculations — no national compensation — these sweeps could have deprived MAS of its majority. Early projections suggested this is just what would happen. In the result, however, PODEMOS won 17 of the 26 local seats in those four provinces, and in each of the four, it had enough votes left over to earn at least one list seat. No disproportionality. Take little Pando, their smallest province. PODEMOS almost won local seat #68, losing by 10 votes to the centrist UN. What happens if a recount changes that result? No change: PODEMOS earned three of the province’s five seats, and now has two local seats and one list seat. If UN lost seat #68, it would take that list seat from PODEMOS instead. The MMP universe is unfolding as it should.

    2. The bigger risk might have been a “large-party bonus” for MAS. It swept all 15 local seats in Bolivia’s largest province, La Paz, and all but one in Cochabamba, Potosi, and Chuquisaca. (Those kind of sweeps happened in four of Scotland’s eight regions in both the last two elections. Last time, Labour got 38.8% of the seats with only 29.3% of the votes.) But in each province, MAS got enough votes to justify those sweeps, enough and to spare: at least one list seat in each of those provinces. In La Paz they got 66.63%, earning 5 list seats on top of their local sweep.

    The final unoffical result seems to be 70 deputies for MAS, dead on target.

  13. Wilfred raises a good point. I was at first disappointed w/ MMP, because of the 2002 debacle. I still do believe (w/ my research evidence to support) that the 1997 & 2002 MMP elections polarized the electorate, which encouraged regionalized party alignments. Perhaps that breakdown was necessary for an eventual re-alignment into the current two-party system. Time will tell, of course. But it seems that the 2005 election was basically split into “blue” (MAS) & “red” (PODEMOS) regions, w/ some “battleground” departments to tip the balance. Either way, an effective party score of 2.2 is remarkable for a country that previously scored 4-5 effective parties.

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  15. The debate over whether or not the MAS party is institutionalized in the longer term overlooks the fundamental lack of discipline and agenda setting structures within Bolivian politics. At the level of formal institutions, Legislative committees are weak as are the leaders of the two chambers. As a result, presidents have traditionally used their control of party organiaztions and clientelist structures to govern both their own parties and the larger coalition. MAS, however, does not have these structures built yet (nor do any of the other movements that contested the 2005 election) and as a result the divisions within his movement have the potential to be more destabilizing at both the level of legislative policymaking and possible social conflict. This is especially true with the expansion of the party in the 2004 local elections and the 2005 legislative elections beyond its andean base, bringing in candidates and sectors outside the structure of the Cocaleros and the other components of IU.

    In this sense, it would seem that the best available linkage structure in the short term is not to engage in party building in the traditional sense but to instead engage in emphasising the personalist linkage around Evo himself as the lingpin that can hold it all together. There thus may be a tradeoff between greater institutionalization in the medium term and governance in the short-term.

  16. Writing about Bolivia, Matt concludes with: “There thus may be a tradeoff between greater institutionalization in the medium term and governance in the short-term.”

    Thanks, Matt, for the comment, which makes several points that need to be considered as we evaluate the “governability” and “institutionalization” prospects of Morales’s and MAS’s government.

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