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 ChÃ¡vez FrÃas 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. ChÃ¡vez himself), mass violent rioting, and two successive presidents who attempted to govern without support in congress and in violation of civil liberties.
ChÃ¡vez 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, ChÃ¡vezâ€™s hastily created Fifth Republic Movement won less than 20% of the vote, finishing almost five percentage points behind the predominant party of Venezuelaâ€™s democratic era, AcciÃ³n DemocrÃ¡tica. Thus, neither the newly elected â€œrevolutionaryâ€ 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 SÃ¡nchez de Losadaâ€™s 22.5%). Unlike ChÃ¡vez, 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 Sundayâ€™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 â€œrevolutionaryâ€ and his main opposition have substantial electoral and congressional supportâ€”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, ChÃ¡vez 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 expectationsâ€”and how his opponents, based in the lowland departments where most of the countryâ€™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 Americaâ€™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 SÃ¡nchez de Losada, led with 25.8%, and ex-dictator and also future constitutional president Hugo Banzer SuÃ¡rez 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 Moralesâ€™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 ChÃ¡vez-like implosion. Bolivia does not have the institutional vacuum that led to ChÃ¡vezâ€™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.”)