Scene at a polling station in La Paz, Bolivia. Photo by Amy Booth
Fairness will not just be an issue in the pursuit of justice. Despite the usual rumours that dead people were registered to vote and ballot boxes were stuffed in advance, the election that swept Arce to victory has been credited as a clean win both nationally and internationally.
It was a punch in the gut to opponents of MAS, who had erupted into jubilant street parties when Morales was forced to resign, proclaiming it not as a coup, but a democratic revolution. Democracy was already on the agenda because Morales had ignored the results of a 2016 referendum that would have prevented him running for re-election.
After the Organization of American States said they suspected “irregularities” in the 2019 election, protest groups rallied around the cry that they were “defending democracy.” Now, the landslide victory for MAS is prompting uncomfortable questions about those claims.
Some are insisting this election was fraudulent, while others are kneeling in the streets praying for a military coup. Images circulating on social media stated: “I support the constitutional transition of power to a military junta,” prompting fact checking site Bolivia Verifica to issue a notice that military juntas are not, in fact, constitutional.
These sectors have already picked fights with more moderate opponents of MAS: Andrea Barrientos, the senator who will head up Mesa’s party in the senate, was hit in the head by a bottle when she tried to engage with far-right protesters in Cochabamba.
These groups are a belligerent minority and their more outlandish objections will not get much serious attention within the political system. But they cannot be dismissed, either. Violent, extremist anti-MAS motorbike gangs such as the Cochabamba Youth Resistance (Resistencia Juvenil Cochala) sprang up during the coup and the right’s year in power. Some of them have physically assaulted and hurled racist, sexist abuse at indigenous people. They are also connected to potentially deadly attacks such as the stabbing of journalist Adair Pinto outside a bar earlier this year.
Human rights groups found that they seemed to be working with, or at least tolerated by, the police, while Áñez and her cabinet praised them as heroes. This prompted concerns that they were acting as para-state groups. Even outside the mainstream political system, street violence and bigotry from these groups is likely to remain a problem.
Within parliament and civil society, right-wingers and centrists who do not like the election results will fight tooth and nail over everything the MAS tries to do, making it difficult to govern. The fight has already started.
The outgoing assembly, in which MAS had a two-thirds majority, voted to change some decisions from requiring a two-thirds supermajority to a simple majority, meaning that in the incoming assembly — where MAS has a majority, but not a supermajority — MAS will have the power to put certain decisions through without securing the support of anyone from the opposition. It affects issues including the promotion of key army and police positions, the selection of ambassadors, filibusters, and changing the daily agenda.
The changes go beyond the mere administrative tweaks the MAS is claiming, making the party less dependent on consensus. But despite the opposition’s claims, they are not exactly riding rough-shod over hallowed democratic institutions, either. There is no way the people out in the streets protesting these measures would be there if Mesa had made the same decision.
For most Bolivians, whether there’s food on the table is more important than whether diplomats are selected by supermajority. At the polls, there was a pervasive sense that a vote for MAS was a vote for jobs: the last government under Morales slashed poverty and extreme poverty, pumping the proceeds from nationalizing major industries into benefits for schoolchildren and various vulnerable groups. Arce, an economist often described as a technocrat, was Evo’s finance minister at the time and is widely credited with that success.
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the global economy, many of Arce’s voters are holding out for him to pull off the same feat again. Sympathetic analysts point out that Bolivia bucked the trend in 2008, continuing to grow despite the global financial crisis. But Arce himself is clearly under no illusion about the challenge at hand.
He has said his government will prioritize domestic industrialization and import substitution over a dreaded devaluation of the peso, which would send prices spiralling and probably usher in inflation. MAS is especially popular among the Indigenous and working-class poor, exactly the groups who will be hardest hit if the economy tanks.
How the MAS’ bases would react if that happens, we do not know — as always, inevitable right-wing arguments about “the next Venezuela” are best consigned to the discursive dustbin. The incoming administration is hoping they will not have to find out.
But with COVID-19-induced poverty creeping, an embittered right poised to scupper this government any way it can, and deafening cries for justice from communities bearing fresh wounds of military brutality, Arce will have to perform a world-class balancing act to bring Bolivia out ahead. He has both the training and the political experience for the job. The road ahead is long and littered with obstacles. The question is whether he can walk it.