Bolivian electoral-system changes

Miguel Centellas notes that the new Bolivian constitution makes a few changes in the country’s legislative electoral system. [link removed]

The legislature is renamed the Plurinational Legislative Assembly and, presumably to put that into action, the first chamber electoral system will be required to have seats set aside for indigenous representation. However, Miguel notes that this is not very significant in practice:

The indigenous seats must come from the 130 total, are limited to “rural” districts […Moreover, ] Rural SMDs were already de facto “indigenous” seats; now that is merely recognized officially.

The MMP system, in which about half the seats are elected from single-seat districts, remains. This is in spite of earlier proposals from the ruling MAS to move to a system of exclusively single-seat districts.

MAS also previously advocated abolishing the Senate. Instead, it will be retained, but with a non-trivial change: the number of seats per department will go from 3 to 4. Currently, these are elected by that Latin American oddity that I refer to as “limited slate” or “limited nominations.” A party may nominate two candidates on a closed list, and the party with the plurality elects both, while the first runner-up elects its first-ranked candidate. (Similar systems are used in the second chambers of Argentina and Mexico.) Miguel notes that the electoral system for the new 4-seat districts is undetermined, but is supposed to be “proportional.”

Bolivia’s Senate is really an anomaly: it just might be the most malapportioned chamber in any unitary state. It is not surprising that, politically, it could not be abolished or even that its malapportionment could not be reduced, given conflicts over regional autonomy. Still, as Miguel says, this reform actually makes the small departments more over-represented. The move to 4-seat districts, however, should counteract that to some degree, as far as partisan representation is concerned, as long as the formula actually is PR and not some continued form of list plurality. Under PR, the second and even third largest party in a department would be better represented than is now the case, which potentially nationalizes the highly regionalized party system a bit more.

As for whether Bolivia retains a unitary state, I believe so. An earlier post by Miguel refers to a new federacy,” a term I understand as within the confines of a unitary state, but with special autonomy status for one or more of several sub-jurisdictions of the state.

In short, these changes seem like small improvements. But will they help solve the country’s deep political conflicts?

Mixed-member systems and regionalism

Miguel asks a good question about the extent to which mixed-member systems might encourage regionalism and thus discourage nationwide coalition-building. He was responding to an earlier (and since revised) planting of mine on Mexico, and offering lessons from the Bolivian experience. Regarding Bolivia, Miguel suggested that in 1997-2002 there appeared to be an emergence of separate regional party systems, similar to what appears to have happened in Mexico. He says:

I actually suspect this is a byproduct of MMP systems, since it encourages the localization of candidates (to win SSD seats) — which is part of my skepticism for MMP in new democracies, if it encourages regionalist splits & discourages nation-wide coalition-building.

First off, Mexico does not have MMP. But we might expect that MMM would have more localizing tendencies than MMP (because the districts actually matter to the overall outcome in terms of the balance of seats held by parties). Such tendencies could generate party systems that are distinct in different regions, possibly with two major parties in one region that are not the same two parties that are most competitive in some other region–national multipartism, regional bipartism.

Does MMP (or MMM) discourage nationwide coalition building and emphasize regionalism? As always in comparison of electoral systems, one needs to ask, relative to what? If the allocation of PR seats to parties is national (as it is in Mexico, though not Bolivia) then it obviously encourages parties to think nationally to a degree that a system of just single-seat districts would not. In Bolivia, it is possible that the adoption of MMP increased both personalism and localism because the antecedent electoral system was pure closed-list PR. In fact, on the interparty dimension–how seats are awarded to parties–Bolivia changed little. The old system was PR with each province as a self-contained multi-seat district. The new one is also PR, but of the MMP variety. There is no national allocation.

What there is, with the change, is a series of individual races by plurality. With MMP, that means a change primarily on the intraparty dimension, in that some legislators are being elected on their own “nominal” votes instead of by party ranking. As a result parties may care about the qualities of the candidates being nominated to a greater degree than on the lists, and those candidates might seek to develop personal connections to the districts.

So, should we expect MMP in Bolivia to be more localizing and personalizing than what went before? Probably, and because there is no provision for overhang seats (the addition of seats to compensate for some party’s getting more seats in the SSD competition than its proportional share entitles it to), there should be more premium on parties’ putting effort into the SSDs than if winning these had no impact on the partisan balance of the legislature. In other words, the MMP system provides some new incentives on both the interparty and intraparty dimensions for parties and candidates to exert effort in winning local races. Given that some parties may have an edge over others in any given geographic region either programmatically or in terms of the types of candidates they can recruit, then this should promote more “localization (to win SSD seats)” than the system that went before it.

As for the expectation that I allude to above that MMM would generate greater emphasis than MMP on the single-seat districts (and hence localization and at least local bi-polarization) the only problem with that is that while the rank order of the parties differs across Mexican states, in only a minority of the states is the third party far behind. So, Mexico would seem not to support the hypothesis that MMM (or mixed-member systems more generally) promote local 2-party politics.* The continued strength of the third party (whichever it may be) in districts that it has no chance to win, even under MMM, is partly a result of the single vote. That is, every party that hopes to win PR seats has a strong incentive to nominate 300 candidates, whether or not viable. Even with this consideration in mind, however, we have to ask what the mixed-member system adopted in Mexico is being compared to. Does it promote localization or nationalization, relative to what?

For Mexico, where at one time the system was all SSDs (and all dominated by one party), the addition of a nationwide PR allocation clearly has helped nationalize politics to a degree that could hardly have happened under a pure SSD system.

In assessing the impact of adopting MMP or MMM (or any other electoral system), we have to ask what variables are changing relative to the former system. And the different starting points, as much as the differences in the systems adopted, affect our expectations about whether mixed-member rules would increase or decrease the extent of regional electoral competition in any given polity.

* I realize that Miguel is responding to the original post, where I employed the “slip of the keyboard” and referred to regional two-party systems, when what I meant was simply that the second party is the PRI almost everywhere and thus local competition is usually PRD vs. PRI or PAN vs. PRI, but rarely what it was in the presidential election: PAN vs. PRD.

Bolivia constituent assembly election

UPDATE (3 July): Good analysis of the Bolivian result at Boli-Nica.

Mexico is not the only country having an election today. See Miguel’s notes about the referendum and constituent assembly election [link removed] in Bolivia. Also our previous exchanges about the funky two-vote, two-tier parallel closed-list limited-seats/[almost] “every party gets a seat”* electoral system being used today.

* I said it was funky. Just to tie today’s elections together, Bolivia’s lower tier rule is the same as the Mexican Senate’s lower tier (also used in Bolivia’s own senate). However, the upper tier is just weird: departmental-level allocation of two seats to the leading list, and one each for the remaining parties till the district’s seats are exhausted. Unless that gets down into parties with less than 5%… I told you it was funky! (And please don’t call it either “mixed-member” or “PR”! Labels matter.)

UPDATE (in response to Miguel): I changed the “limited nominations” in my original (whimsical) name for this electoral system to “limited seat” for accuracy (see comments below for more) and also becuase it has a nice parallel (so to speak) with the concept of a “limited vote” system (defined as a nominal-vote system wherein voters get to vote for more than one, but less than M candidates, where M is the number of seats in the district and the top M vote-winners are elected). The Bolivian rules that this discussion refers to say that the plurality party wins more than one seat (and likely more than proportional seats), but less than M seats. Hence “limited seats,” which I would consider a variant of list plurality, just as I would consider the limited vote a variant of nominal plurality. (The system in question would also be “limited nominations” if the party could place on its list only as many candidates as it could win, were it to get the plurality of votes, which apparently is not the case here.)

Bolivia and Morales’s “socialism”

[UPDATE: Eduardo posts the data and a discussion of the departmental elections below. Thanks, Eduardo!]

I want to call readers’ attention to an excellent radio program on Bolivia. On Open Source, it aired on January 3, but I just now have had a chance to listen to it.

It features Jeffrey Sachs and Miguel Centellas. Sachs, of course, is an internationally renowned development economist and advisor on economic reform in Bolivia during the hyperinflationary crisis twenty years ago (as well as in post-Soviet Russia and elsewhere). Centellas is familiar to F&V readers from his many excellent comments here in various threads on Bolivia and MMP systems. Jim Schultz, of the Democracy Center and Blog from Bolivia is also on the program. Continue reading

Bolivia’s MMP: The chamber of deputies result

Even though an excerpt of each of these comments appears (as with all comments at F&V) over on the left sidebar, the following comments to an earlier post on Bolivia are so interesting and relevant to ongoing themes here that I wanted to “promote” them to the front page. Thanks, Wilfred and Miguel! Please note: None of the remaining text in this post is mine.*

FROM WILFRED DAY: If the 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. Continue reading

Bolivia post-election update

MABB has posted a graphic of the Bolivian electoral results by department that is quite interesting. The results are not quite “final” but probably not much will change. Morales seems to have wound up with over 55%. Amazing.

He won majorities in five of nine departments. Podemos won pluralities–but not majorities–in the other four. The only department where the top two candidates were not those of MAS (Morales) or Podemos was Beni, where the MNR came in second (23.9%, to Podemos 47.6 and MAS with 15.3). Other than Beni, in the departments where Morales did not win the majority, he won a quarter to a third of the votes. This is impressive national coverage for a candidate who was, going into the election, widely seen as mostly a regional phenomenon. (Detailed departmental breakdowns are at the CNE site.)

This result would give MAS 12 senators, Podemos 13, and the MNR and FUN 1 each*. I have not yet seen any deputies results. The votes for the list tier of the Chamber of Deputies necessarily are the same as for president and senate (the voter selects a single party list for all three offices); however, the result in the lower house also depends on the results in the nominal tier (i.e. the single-seat districts). Even though the deputies are assigned via MMP (i.e. the list seats are allocated in compensatory fashion), it is not a simple translation of list votes into a share of the department’s total seat allocation, because with some departments having relatively few seats and compensation being carried out department-by-department (with no national adjustment, as in Germany) it is possible for a party to out-do its proportional share in the single-seat districts. In that case, the result will be somewhat disproportional in a way that can’t be determined without knowing the nominal-tier breakdown.

*This is corrected from an earlier version of this post.

Bolivia: why the polls were so wrong

boz offers some reflections on why several pre-election polls in Bolivia said that Evo Morales would not break 35% when in fact he broke 50% (and, apparently, with plenty of room to spare). He finds (as do I) that the most plausible explanations lie in pollsters’ reliance on models that failed to take account of how much more motivated to turn out were Morales’s supporters compared to those of other candidates, and the likelihood that a lot of voters decided very late in the campaign.

Bolivian senate

El Diario is reporting the possible make-up of the new Bolivian Senate:

MAS 12
UN 1

There are three senators for each of Bolivia’s nine departments. Senators are elected by limited-nominations closed-list plurality. In plain English, each party may nominate a slate of two candidates, which it ranks. The list that obtains the plurality of votes elects both its candidates. The list that comes in second elects its first-listed candidate.

No news yet on the lower house.

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.”)

Bolivia: What to do about Morales?

Bolivians vote on Sunday, and the most likely outcome remains a plurality of the vote for MAS, the party of Evo Morales. He will not win a majority, and so a joint sitting of the two chambers of congress that will be elected on Sunday will select the president. Its choices will be restricted to either Morales or the candidate who is second in votes–almost certainly former president Jorge Quiroga. Continue reading

Voter turnout in Bolivia (and a comparison to Colombia)

In the seedbed of one of my previous plantings on Bolivia, Miguel Centellas makes some quite fascinating observations about turnout of poor voters in Bolivia. Much of what he says fits with most of my understanding about poor people’s participation in Latin America: that it is largely instrumental and orchestrated by leaders:

it was clear that protests hit their peak at just about the part where the leaders of the “sindicatos” started handing out the little “fichas” (used to mark attendance). Once the fichas were distributed, a protest of several thousand could dwindle down to less than a hundred. Protesters are either a) paid to protest or b) fined by their local sindicato bosses for failure to attend.

If you will forgive my painting with a terribly broad brush (or should that be digging with a terribly broad spade?), I would say this is fairly typical. However, then I see a contradiction in the next point Miguel makes, and I am puzzled by it:

voter turnout in poor areas is often low due to transportation and other matters, regardless of organization. The day of voting, all public transportation (well, almost all businesses, actually) are shut down. So voter turnout can be low if it’s difficult to reach a polling station.

I am wondering how different this is from Colombia, where I observed some congressional elections as part of my research in the 1990s in both rural and urban areas of the coffee growing region (around Manizales, Chinchiná, and Pereira). Voter turnout tends to be quite low in Colombia, especially in congressional elections (which, unlike in Bolivia, are not on the same day as presidential). Turnout in Colombia tends to be significantly lower in aggregate levels, than in Bolivia. Yet the people who are most likely to vote, in Colombian legislative elections, tend to be precisely those who are organized (and perhaps paid somehow) to vote. So, it remains puzzling to me that Bolivia could have mass organization among the poor that are so effective in mobilizing people that they can shut the major (and minor) cities down for days on end, and yet these same people would have low voter turnout.

Regarding transportation shutdowns on voting day, that is true in Colombia, too. But the buses that would normally run on regular routes are used, along with other vehicles, to transport voters to the polls. The area near polling stations is jammed all day long with buses and other vehicles that transport voters–those affiliated with party or labor or other organizations, that is–to vote. I have never witnessed a Bolivian election, so I do not know how typical this Colombian pattern is (or even it the pattern I am describing is still typical of Colombia, given recent political and institutional changes).

Condorcet and Bolivia

Just a quick note here, in that at the very moment that I posted my entry on Chile’s senate election, in came a terrific comment from Miguel Centellas to my previous post on Bolivia. In the comment, Miguel notes that Evo Morales is almost certainly the Condorcet loser (i.e., would lose to any other candidate in a head-to-head contest). How timely of Miguel to bring up the Condorcet matter in this context, given the extensive discussion of Condorcet (also triggered by a comment to a previous post) that was carried out here in the past week.

I certainly agree that Morales is the Condorcet loser. Will Congress really ratify his plurality? The congressional runoff process is designed for nothing if not to prevent a Condorcet loser from becoming president.

Also, I should note that I failed in my previous post on Bolivia to note that Miguel believes Evo Morales’s actual support in the election will be lower than the polls suggest, because the polls do not seek to determine who is a likely voter. That may well be, although I will admit to being surprised that Morales’s voters would be less motivated than those of other candidates. I do not know enough about the Bolivian electorate to comment on that, and so I will defer to Miguel–and thank him for planting a seed!

Revolutionary situations?: Bolivia and Morales in comparative perspective

A commenter to my previous post on Bolivia reasserts his claim that a potential victory by Evo Morales in the scheduled interim election for Bolivia’s presidency would lead to a revolutionary dictatorship. The gist of the commenter’s argument is that it happened in Cuba (Castro) and Venezuela (Chávez), and it could happen in Bolivia:

It doesn’t happen overnight, but with a determined despot, it eventually happens. In fact, it always happens.

Wow, what an amazing claim! This is a bit like the claims made by players on victorious sports teams that they wanted it more than the other team. If we believe in ourselves, nobody can stop us! No, the winning team did not want it more, it won because of forces largely out of the immediate control of the players themselves. Same with revolutions and revolutionaries. It is not the determination of the would-be dictator that makes a revolution; it is the collapse or take-over of state institutions that would otherwise check the “determined despot.” In the Bolivian case, the probability is low that Morales could become president in the first place. But if he does, the probability is even lower that he could control congress or dispense with its check on the presidency, and lower still that he could overcome the resistance of the armed forces to the consolidation of a totalitarian-style revolutionary regime.

Let’s review the Cuban and Venezuelan (and, I will add, Chilean) cases and see the extent to which Bolivia has similar characteristics.

In the case of Cuba, Batista’s army collapsed, unwilling to stand and fight once the dictator fled. (I have developed this argument in Theory and Society (1989), and Robert Dix and others have developed similar arguments.) There were no political parties to articulate the interests of the middle class (as noted by Javier Corrales in Latin American Politics and Society, 2001), and most of the middle class that might have formed the backbone of an oppositions to Castro—the way the Nicaraguan middle class and its parties and backing of armed resistance would later check the Sandinistas—fled the island. There was no legislature to check Castro because it had already been emasculated by Batista. In the decades since coming to power, Castro has never permitted the development of institutions that might check him (as argued by Perez-Stable in Comparative Politics, 1999). Cuba is about as institution-free an environment as one can imagine for a relatively stable political system, and it has been such almost from the day Castro took power, thanks to the collapse of the army and the absence of significant political parties or a legislature.

In Venezuela, Chávez had first tried to seize power in a coup in 1992, for which he was subsequently dismissed from the army, but for which he received widespread accolades from the lower classes who had been losing ground under what had become an increasingly hollow form of “democracy.” He was later released from prison and mounted a presidential campaign, and won 58% of the vote in 1998—the most ever for a candidate under the 1958–98 electoral regime. He campaigned openly on a platform of replacing the country’s constitution and signed a decree convoking a referendum on the matter on his very first day in office. This represented a break in the institutional order, but one that he clearly had a mandate for (and the supreme court upheld it). In the ensuing years, he has indeed consolidated an ever narrower regime that could be moving in a quasi-totalitarian direction (as I argue in a review of an edited volume on Venezuela; the review will be published soon in Perspectives on Politics). While I do agree that Venezuela’s political situation has radicalized, it is still a very long way from being “another Cuba.” (And while land seizures are indeed on the increase, as the commenter to my first post notes, I would note that they are nowhere near the scale of Zimbabwe. Moreover, Chávez still confronts stronger opposition parties and a larger middle class than Mugabe does.)

Now, do these conditions apply in Bolivia? First of all, we do not even know if the elections for December are going ahead, as I noted in my earlier post. If they are, the outer limit in voter support that Morales can obtain is probably in the low-to-mid thirties. (He won 22% and placed second last time.) Under Bolivia’s constitution, the popular vote is not decisive. In fact, Bolivia is one of two countries in the world in which the presidential candidate who obtains the highest vote total in the final or sole round of popular voting can “lose” to the runner up. (The other, of course, is the United States.)

Having failed to win a majority outright, Morales would be dependent upon horse-trading in congress just to get the presidency in the first place (as noted by baz in the comments to my earlier post, as well as in the post itself). It is highly unlikely that congress would elevate him to the presidency, but even if it did, he would face a congress in which he had a plurality of seats, but nowhere near a majority. Unlike Chávez, who also faced a fragmented congress (elected, unprecedentedly for Venezuela, months before the president in a transparent and successful effort to deprive the winner of a working majority in the body), Morales would lack the popular backing to decree a constitutional-replacement process over the heads of that congress. Not having built up a base of support inside the junior office corps (as had Chávez, from the inside), Morales could not count on the acquiescence of the armed forces. I cannot see how a hypothetical Morales presidency could avoid being checked by congress, the military (and probably also the judiciary, which has become quite assertive in recent years, unlike that of Venezuela in the 1990s).

If Morales were to become president, the historical parallel most relevant would not be Venezuela or Cuba, but Chile under Allende. And we know how that ended. But even that scenario is unlikely to be repeated in Bolivia were Morales to become president. Unlike Allende, Morales could not count on a broad alliance of well established parties to support him. He certainly would not get the unanimous support of congress to nationalize gas production, as Allende got for nationalizing copper. The pro-Allende parties managed a narrow majority in 1971 nationwide municipal elections and very narrowly missed a majority in congressional elections three months before the September 11 coup. Allende was a long-time senator with considerable respect across the political spectrum, even if his avowedly revolutionary agenda commanded only minority support. Morales would have none of Allende’s advantages, such as they were.

Revolutions that occur almost always surprise us. They are notoriously hard to see coming. But if Morales (1) became president, (2) controlled or overcame congress, and (3) marginalized the military, it would be one of the great surprises of contemporary Latin American regime change. Even in revolutions, the preexisting institutions matter. (That was for you Steven T.: a little flashback to, what, 1988?)

Whether Morales is selected president one day or not—and I still think the likely outcome is not—the most likely scenario is continuing instability and ungovernability. Not a pretty scenario, but not the installation of a Marxist dictatorship, either.