Evo Morales coasts in Bolivian polls despite some unexpected critics

Former supporters say government reneged on promises to indigenous and environmental groups, but third term expected

Campaign billboards in El Alto, Bolivia, for President Evo Morales, who is running for re-election in the vote on Oct. 12. He is heavily favored to win, but opposition has arisen from some surprising circles.
Juan Karita / AP Images

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Billboards of President Evo Morales and Vice President Ávaro García Linera hang across this city and proclaim simply "Vamos bien" (We're doing well).

It's a fair point. Morales is polling 41 points ahead of his closest challenger ahead of the country's Oct. 12 presidential election. Morales, in his ninth year in office, is running for an unprecedented third consecutive term. If re-elected, he is on track to become the longest-serving leader in the country's history — a remarkable feat, considering this Andean nation's past is marked by short presidencies, military coups and political instability.

Bolivia is among the fastest-growing economies in Latin America and is enjoying relative prosperity. Morales has proved adept at balancing the demands of the many constituencies that his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party unites, and he is poised for another election victory partly predicated on increased support in former opposition strongholds. But not everyone is pleased with his government. There are the anticipated long-term dissenters, including parts of the urban middle and upper classes, but there are also less expected voices, including some indigenous organizations, environmentalists and political progressives.

Wearing his trademark leather sombrero, Fernando Vargas cuts an unmistakable figure. He rose to national prominence while leading marches against a government-planned highway through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), where he lives, and is now running for president. However, his Green Party is polling at just 2 percent, while Morales sits comfortably with about 59 percent.

Vargas said the Morales government's promise to respect indigenous territory and self-determination has proved false, especially with its failure to comply with the constitution and consult indigenous people of the TIPNIS before planning a road through their territory.

"With the title of an indigenous government, they go into the international context claiming to be defenders of the Mother Earth, the environment and of indigenous rights," he said, "but within the country, they are violating those principles."

Mining, which has always been a cornerstone of the Bolivian economy, is another source of friction between the Morales administration and indigenous and environmental groups, on both large and small projects.

In recent years relatively high mineral prices and the government's favorable policies toward cooperative miners have led to a dramatic increase in the number of small, independent groups of miners who have gotten the legal right, or concession, to work certain areas. It's a situation that frustrates those who hoped the government would balance the Bolivian economy's reliance on extractive industries like mining with promises to respect indigenous rights and protect the environment.

"The cooperatives are cooperative only in word. In practice they are small businesses that are like vultures,” said Cancio Rojas, a leader of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), an association of highland indigenous communities. “They destroy everything and leave the land totally contaminated."

Rojas was imprisoned in 2012 for his role in a mining protest that turned violent. In 2013, CONAMAQ divided into a pro-government group and another, which he leads, that is critical of government mining policies. "The cooperative miners are in the government, and they define the law,” he said.

Colectivo Casa is an organization that works with communities affected by mining. Member Emilio Madrid said Bolivia's new mining law, passed in May, restricts communities' right to be consulted on — or to protest — projects that affect their land.

"Protest is the origin of this government, which came up from social movements, from resistance,” Madrid said. “It would not exist if previous governments had criminalized protest to the extent of the present government."

While some former Morales supporters criticize current policies, new allies have emerged in force.

‘Protest is the origin of this government, which came up from social movements, from resistance. It would not exist if previous governments had criminalized protest to the extent of the present government.’

Emilio Madrid

advocate for communities affected by mining

Bolivia's western highlands and the coca farmers of the central tropics, where Morales rose to political prominence as a union leader, remain his strongest bases of support. But across the country from La Paz, in the eastern areas that were the seat of virulent opposition, the president has gained ground. In 2005 he won 33 percent of the vote in the eastern state of Santa Cruz, and today he is polling at 50 percent. Part of that change may be attributed to migration of supporters, but it seems at least some new voters have been won over.

"The strong economy, only moderate land reform and Morales' concessions [on large-scale agriculture] seem to have smoothed over much resistance," said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a policy analysis group.

Along with highly visible infrastructure projects, the government's bono initiatives, which transfer small amounts of cash to retirees, mothers of young children and school children, boost support for Morales. These programs are a cornerstone of the government's economic redistribution policy, which partly relies on increased income from government nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry in 2006.

"Evo Morales has done well. He's made a few mistakes, as we all do, but things are very stable, and he's made us all equal," said Maria Chacón, a retiree from the neighboring city of El Alto. "I don't know how it would be with another president."

"I think the Morales government is managing better than any other government or party before. No other president has taken care of so many things," said young La Paz resident Jherty Gironda, pointing to better roads and the teleférico, a mass-transit gondola system that recently debuted in La Paz. "That's what society looks for."

While Chacón and Gironda support a third term for Morales, law student Marco Antonio Vargas said it’s time the president hand over power.

Morales was first elected president in 2005, and his bid for a third term is contentious because the Bolivian constitution allows for just two. It's a limit that MAS argues he is not subject to because his first term was under the country's former constitution, and last year the nation's electoral court agreed.

"I don't think he should be re-elected because opportunity should be given to other candidates," said Vargas — which candidate, however, he is unsure.

"I don't really know what the candidates propose, because you didn't hear them on the radio or see them in the press or see them on television," he said, referring to a rule endorsed by the electoral court prohibiting campaigning before Sept. 12. "So what is left for people? To vote for what they know."

Of course, Morales has company when it comes to Latin American presidents on both the right and left who sought to extend their presidencies, including Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Peru's Alberto Fujimori, Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia.

"This could be seen by MAS as a third and final Morales term to consolidate initiatives. A third term could also exacerbate existing frustrations about persisting societal problems, such as police corruption, violence against women and a weak, overburdened judiciary," said Ledebur. "It's too soon to say if he will move to legitimize a fourth run for president."

With Morales' presidential victory looking more certain every day, election watchers are wondering whether MAS will win two-thirds of the seats in the national assembly — which would allow legislative dominance.

Rojas, for one, hopes the government does not attain that majority.

"The power they have now is abusive," he said. "They don't allow us to exercise our rights enshrined in the constitution."

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