Bolivians vote to keep Morales

The stakes were high for President Evo Morales going into presidential and legislative elections on December 6. “We have gained the government but still don’t have power,” he said.

That worry is over. Morales, Vice President Alvaro García Linera, and the Movement toward Socialism Party (MAS) swept up 62 percent of the ballots cast by 5.1 million voters to win a second four year term.

Trailing by up to 40 points in pre-election polls, lead opponent Manfred Reyes of the Progressive Plan for Bolivia party took 23 percent of the votes. He was already ticketed for a December 8 American Airlines departure for Miami. The former Cochabamba prefect, a School of the Americas graduate, faces corruption charges.

Morales became president in January 2006 following an unprecedented 53.7 percent win. On August 14, 2008, Morales and his vice president gained a 67 percent majority in a recall vote.

The main question before the vote this week was whether MAS could secure the two thirds senate majority – 24 of 36 senators – necessary for approving constitutional changes, key legislation, and appointments. Lacking that, the Morales government has been unable to name judges and high treasury officials, or pass universal health insurance and anti-corruption legislation. MAS candidates took 25 senate seats to remedy that situation.

At issue, suggested political scientist Franklin Pareja, was implementation of the new constitution approved last January by a 59 percent MAS majority. That victory capped two years of tumultuous, violence-ridden struggle fomented by a European descended, wealthy elite who control agricultural and hydrocarbon-endowed regions in eastern Bolivia.

The new constitution introduces “important transformations,” suggested election official Antonio Costas, especially broadened political participation by women, youth, and indigenous peoples. The three are forms of advanced democracy: direct and participatory democracy, representative democracy, and a communitarian variety promoting autonomy for indigenous peoples. Some 60 percent of Bolivians are indigenous. Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state since the Europeans’ arrival.

Voters approved a referendum granting autonomy to 12 indigenous municipalities. The new constitution contains autonomy provisions affecting five departments. They also passed. Four departments in eastern Bolivia had voted approval earlier.

Overall results were shaped in large part by weakening of opposition groups in Bolivia’s east, due largely to the discovery last April in Santa Cruz, the opposition epicenter, of a potentially violent anti-Morales plot. National police made arrests and killed three armed suspects originating from Romania, Ireland, and Hungary. A legislative commission last week released the names of likely accomplices. Topping the list are Santa Cruz political chieftains Rubén Costas and Branco Marinkovic, each a vociferous Morales antagonist.

Some 170,000 Bolivians living abroad voted absentee for the first time. Election officials introduced biometric voter identification technology. Election observers were ubiquitous, especially from the Organization of American States and European Union.

Before the election, some suggested that the first Morales term was remarkable less for accomplishments than for turning Morales into an international and domestic icon. Morales supporters, however, cite achievements over four years contributing to the victory.

The minimum wage increased 47 percent, currency reserves are up from $1 billion to $8.7 billion; and the GDP grew three percent last year. Electricity costs are down 25 percent, natural gas 50 percent. Extreme poverty has fallen from 37 to 31 percent.

Peasant communities have received 1,400 free tractors, and $237 million have been spent on 2,810 public works, sanitation, and drinking water projects. Agrarian reform has delivered 10 million acres to poor farmers with another 25 million acres ready for transfer.

Nationalization of hydrocarbons led to $5 billion being transferred to local governments and universities. That funding has provided pregnant women and babies with $257 each, 700,000 seniors with $342 annually, and two million young students with annual grants for school supplies.

Bolivia is one of seven countries with the sharpest drop recently in infant mortality. Illiteracy has been eradicated, and 450,000 free eye operations have been performed. Free health care is available. Bolivia is now a “plurinational” state representing 36 nationalities. Three indigenous universities have been founded. Unemployment, however, rose from 10.2 percent to 11 percent over the past year.

“The results will mark another milestone for the country,” Morales commented, “because the so-called half moon area (the contentious eastern departments) will no longer exist, being converted into a full moon of unity among all Bolivians.”


Photo: Joel Alvarez WikiMedia Creative Commons 2.0



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.