A setback becomes an opportunity for Evo Morales

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 23, 2016

 

Although the official results for the Sunday referendum on abolishing presidential term limits in Bolivia are not yet in, exit polls and preliminary results point to a heavy blow for President Evo Morales, who championed the “Yes” cause. If the “No” option prevails, Morales will be banned from seeking re-election when his current term expires in 2019.

 

Yet the referendum defeat will also offer an opportunity to the first indigenous president and the longest-serving head of state in the history of Bolivia. In the next three years, Morales will have enough time to prepare a successor who can prolong the legacy of his indigenous revolution. The Bolivian president can still build a strong legacy as a democratic leader who made Bolivia a much better country and who stepped down democratically.

 

When Morales first came into power after a landslide victory in 2005, few expected that he would last so long and would so deeply transform Bolivia. The country was historically characterized by instability, with presidents averaging less than two years in power — Morales’s two predecessors had not completed their terms. In his 10-year tenure, Morales succeeded in enacting a new constitution (which established, among other, a two-term limit for presidents). Under Morales, Bolivia has also benefitted greatly from the commodity boom which has helped all of Latin America, but unlike other leftwing governments in the region, Morales was more fiscally responsible. Thus, although Bolivia is facing the same slowdown which has brought recessions elsewhere in the region, with its four percent growth in 2016, the landlocked country will be one of the fastest-growing in Latin America. Morales has introduced several reforms to alleviate poverty and developed an infrastructure which can help propel economic growth (although his bias against the private sector has led him to favour state-led enterprises). As the commodity boom ends, Morales’s anti-capitalist bias will probably hinder private investment and slow down the economic reinvention the country will need to undergo to cope with the realities of the global economy.

 

Despite the unquestionable success he has had in transforming Bolivia, Morales has seen his popularity and approval decline as his leadership wears thin. The scandal uncovered a few weeks before the plebiscite exemplifies how he has lost touch with the people. In 2007, when he was already president, Morales had a secret affair with a 21-year-old student (26 years younger than Morales). The woman gave birth to a child, Ernesto Fidel. The woman then went on to become a high official in a Chinese company which has won several government contracts. When the press first reported the affair, Morales first denied it and then accepted it, clarifying that the child had “unfortunately died” shortly after birth. Morales denied having stayed in touch with the woman. Yet, when pictures surfaced showing them hugging at a public event in 2013, Morales explained that he has recognized a familiar face but did not know the name of the person he was hugging.

 

Morales, who is single and has two young children from two different mothers, seemed more concerned with trying to disprove rumours of corruption and favouritism to a former love interest than interested in demonstrating his human side. After all, there is nothing wrong with being deferential to the mother of his child who passed away.

 

It is unclear how much effect the scandal had on the plebiscite result. Before the scandal broke, polls showed the “Yes” vote trailing the “No” by a slim margin in urban centres. As in previous elections, ruling MAS party officials expected Morales to win with strong support from rural areas. However, early results show that despite Morales’ strong backing in rural areas, the margin of defeat in urban areas is wide enough to offset strong support for the “Yes” vote in rural areas.

 

Although the administration has announced that it will wait until all votes are counted to take an official stance, yesterday’s comments by President Morales hint that he is ready to accept defeat. Morales said that he did not care about the results but asked to wait for the final count and then went on to reaffirm his commitment to continue with the struggle and to stay on course with his reforms.

 

Accepting defeat would be an opportunity for Morales to show his commitment to democracy even when he loses. Since he has not lost an election in his 10 years in power, conceding to the opposition will strengthen his democratic credentials. Moreover, by accepting that he is in last term and has three years to strengthen his legacy and identify a successor, Morales can build a legacy that will set an example for other leaders in the region. In addition to being the first indigenous president and the longest-serving leader in the history of Bolivia, Morales has the chance to become the first president who steps down democratically and retires from active political life after having deeply transformed the country with more successes than failures.