Undefeatable Evo Morales?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 26, 2016


After 10 years in office, Bolivian President Evo Morales continues to dominate national politics. Having consolidated presidential power and facing a fragmented opposition, two obstacles threaten Morales’ tenure. One is the term-limit provision in the 2009 constitution. A national referendum on February 21 will likely do away with term limits. The other, bigger threat, is the end of the commodities boom that has brought unprecedented growth to Bolivia. Though Morales’ prospects to win the referendum are good, the road ahead looks less promising for the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history.


Shortly after coming to power with an overwhelming electoral victory in December, 2005, Morales championed the drafting of a new constitution. After his Movement toward Socialism (MAS) outmanoeuvered the fragmented opposition, Morales was able to promulgate a new constitution in 2007. Social unrest from renegade provinces eventually forced the president to hold a constitutional referendum. Again, people strongly supported him and voted in favour of the reform. Since the constitution allowed for one presidential re-election, the fact that he was the unquestionable leader of the indigenous movement that controlled power in Bolivia — and the good economic results that had taken place under his state-centred economic policy roadmap — led to him to a successful re-election in 2009. Five years later, under the claim that his first ran was under the old constitution, Morales successfully ran again for the presidency.


Since he will be term-limited in 2019, Morales supporters pushed for a constitutional referendum to abolish term-limits. As MAS controls 88 of the 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 25 of the 36 seats in the Senate, the referendum was swiftly convened for February 21.


Morales has been actively campaigning to abolish the term-limit ban. His allies in MAS point that GDP per capita has doubled since 2005 as poverty has declined from around 60% eleven years ago to 35% today and all social indicators show significant progress. The fact that the opposition has struggled to find common ground and lacks a charismatic leader has also helped Morales. For its part, the legal action brought by Morales against Chile to the International Court in The Hague has also strengthened the president’s position. A procedural ruling in favour of Bolivia in 2015 was celebrated as the biggest step forward in Bolivia’s historic claim against Chile to restore sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean lost in a war in 1879. Morales’ dominance of the political arena in the country has been so overwhelming that one of the most popular opposition leader, Carlos Mesa (a former president), was appointed by Morales as the international spokesperson for the Bolivian cause.


Recent polls have provided confusing information regarding public preferences on the term-limits referendum. Last week, an Ipsos poll conducted in major urban centres gave the “No” vote a slim majority. Other urban polls have given the “Yes” a majority. Since Morales’ strongest support is in rural areas-where MAS activists hold a strong political grip and have delivered high turnout in the past-the expectation is that rural Bolivia will again stand up in favour of the first indigenous president.


The electoral setback suffered by MAS in the regional elections in early 2015 has led others to question the effectiveness of Morales’s electoral appeal. It is true that many Bolivians abandoned MAS candidates and voted for the opposition last year, but Morales was not himself in the race for regional governments. The vote on February 21 will be essentially about whether Morales is allowed to run again when his term expires in 2019. Even if many Bolivians are unsure today as to whether they will want to give the president a fourth term in office, they will not actively prevent themselves from having that option in 2019.


However, even if Morales wins the term-limits referendum, there are other grey clouds on the horizon. The end of the commodities boom has hurt Bolivian exports. The economy will expand by 3.9% in 2016-the lowest in 10 years (though still higher than most other Latin American countries). The government is under increasing pressure to let the currency devalue, but that will have negative consequences on inflation and domestic consumption. If Morales wins the referendum, a gradual devaluation is expected. Though the government can tap to its international reserves to promote domestic consumption in the form of additional poverty alleviating and other social programmes, limited state capacity, rampant corruption and lower productivity will hinder the effect of a financial stimulus. With the end of the tailwind effect of the world economic cycle, Bolivia will need to develop a serious plan for domestic industrialization and productivity growth. After 10 years of Morales in office, progress in those areas has been slow.


Thus, even if the short-term concern for President Evo Morales is to win the February 21 referendum, the bigger concern should be the long-term challenge to keep the economy growing and continue to reduce poverty if he intends to win a fourth term in 2019.