Bolivian President Evo Morales lost the referendum last Sunday that could have given him the ability to run for re-election in 2019. The margin was small, but the implications are huge: Bolivia’s longest standing and most popular president finally has an end date for his time in power, on January 22, 2020.
The lead up to the election was brutal, with an array of corruption scandals and conflicts, the most tragic of which was a protest last Wednesday against the opposition-controlled mayor’s office that resulted in a fire leading to six deaths. This disaster, the key details of which are still unclear, cast a shadow over the referendum. But the corruption scandals, which had besieged pro-Morales indigenous and campesino organizations as well as the presidency, had already made their imprint on national public opinion. Just last March, the Movement Toward Socialism, (MAS, Morales’ political party) lost key regional elections in several departments, in part due to the fallout from the corruption charges.
Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who rose to prominence as a union leader among coca farmers and as a dissident congressman, has won three general elections, including a 2014 victory with over 60% of the vote, and is now in his tenth year in power. Over this decade, he has presided over a host of historic policies and measures, including rewriting the constitution in a constituent assembly, extending government control over the country’s lucrative natural gas reserves, and expanding access to education, healthcare, and the political process to previously marginalized sectors of society. Economic growth has remained solid through much of his time in power, thanks to his government’s economic policies and the boom in oil and gas prices. As a result, under Morales, poverty rates have dropped dramatically for citizens in South America’s poorest country.
But this period hasn’t been without its pitfalls, and critics on the left and the right have pointed out a variety of problems surrounding the MAS government. Critics claimed the 2009 constitution, presided over by the MAS government, failed bring forward necessary land reform. Morales touts the rights of nature and Mother Earth, but leads an extractive-based economy that has wreaked havoc in the countryside, extended extractive industries into national parks, and displaced some of the same rural communities his policies aim to support. Denouncements of corruption scandals, co-optation and repression of various social and indigenous movements, authoritarian tendencies against political opponents and critical media have followed his presidency for years. At the same time, the opposition has been fragmented, lacking unity while Morales and the MAS consistently win major elections and reforms supported at the ballot box.
The referendum which took place on Sunday brought many of these issues to the forefront, at times making the vote less about the nature of democracy in Bolivia, and more about Morales himself. The president said he would win the referendum in a landslide, but in the end, the Yes vote supporting his hopes for re-election in 2019 lost by roughly 2%.
The implications of the referendum results are varied. First is the issue of succession. Morales said today that it is too early to speak of who might fill his shoes on the MAS ticket. Regardless of who takes on that role, the MAS is very likely to have a prominent presence in Bolivia’s political sphere for decades to come. The opposition is still very divided and without key leaders. The No vote in the referendum had the impact of uniting a wide array of MAS opponents that don’t just go under the umbrella of the Bolivian right; disenchanted leftists, people simply tired of Morales or believing that a change in the presidency is good for democracy, anarchists, indigenous dissidents, and others allied with the neoliberals and conservatives to vote No. The referendum victory they brought about doesn’t necessary signal a shift to the right in Bolivia. Indeed, it simply further opens up the playing field to the country’s variety of political currents.
The vote does however point to a significant new chapter in Bolivia’s recent political trajectory. Morales was first elected in 2005 on the back of a series of popular uprisings that challenged neoliberalism and toppled establishment politicians. The social movements of the era that took a stand against corporate globalization and the Bolivian oligarchy transformed the country’s political landscape, opening up spaces for change that Morales filled; the indigenous president, no stranger to protests and road blockades himself, used his relationship with the country’s dynamic social movements to push forward institutional and societal changes that otherwise would have been impossible.
But the Bolivian left and its vibrant social and indigenous movements were always bigger than the MAS, and Sunday’s referendum results underline this. The future of the country beyond January of 2020 will not have a Morales presidency in it, but it will still be in the hands of the Bolivian people who, over the last decade and a half, kicked out multinational corporations, ousted neoliberal tyrants, faced down US imperialism, and expanded the country’s – and the world’s – imagination about what is politically possible, not just via the ballot box, but through protests, barricades, and social movements.