LA PAZ, Bolivia - Early results show Bolivia’s leftwing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has won a landslide victory in presidential elections this weekend.
The surprise result comes after the government of former MAS president Evo Morales was forced out by violent protests last year.
Quick counts by two polling organizations show Luis Arce, MAS presidential candidate, and his running-mate David Choquehuanca winning with around 53% of the vote, a strong advantage over runner-up Carlos Mesa, who has around 31%. Official results will take a few days to arrive, but conservative interim president Jeanine Áñez has already recognized the MAS victory.
“We don’t have the official count yet, but by the data we have, Mr. Arce and Mr. Choquehuanca have won the election,” she tweeted. “I congratulate the victors and ask them to govern thinking of Bolivia and democracy.”
The MAS campaign house in Bolivia’s political capital La Paz exploded into celebrations after a long, tense wait for results from the quick count.
“We will govern for all Bolivians. We will build a government of national unity. We will build unity in our country,” said incoming president Luis Arce in a calm, composed speech.
Exuberant supporters clapped and chanted Arce’s name as he left the room. MAS campaign members and activists hugged, slapping each other on the back and congratulating each other in hearty tones that showed joy and relief. “In my heart… I knew we were going to win with over 50%,” MAS supporter Daniel Loza told VICE News, his comments barely audible over the whoops of party members and fireworks outside. The results made him feel “unbridled joy”, he said.
Arce will face the daunting task of uniting a deeply polarized country and reviving an economy devastated by COVID. Morales was the first Bolivian president from the country’s indigenous majority and had a loyal support base, especially among working-class, indigenous and rural voters.
He was in power for nearly fourteen years, but fraud allegations after last October’s election sparked a wave of roadblocks and protests that escalated into violence, forcing him to resign. Several studies dispute the evidence of fraud.
During Áñez’ interim presidency, indigenous protesters were massacred and many former MAS officials were thrown in jail. Many hope that this election will mark the beginning of a new era.
“I hope that the losing parties will accept the results, and the persons who have falsely criminalized will be freed, and that the winners will also respect the opposition,” said Doug Hertzler, election observer for the delegation Academics for Democracy in Latin America and the Carribean.
Deep divisions were palpable at the ballot boxes in La Paz. “[MAS] are totally shameless,” said Dennise Ordoñez, a 26-year-old baker who protested against them after last year’s election. She was voting at a polling station in the affluent, trendy Sopocachi district in downtown La Paz. “They robbed us and we couldn’t do anything. I don’t want this country to end up like Venezuela or Cuba.” Voters at that station cast their ballots overwhelmingly for runner-up Mesa, according to the public tally sheets on display during the count.
But in the lower middle-class district of Tembladarani, where flash skyscrapers give way to mechanic’s workshops and street markets, opinions were more mixed.
“In these last 14 years I feel like I’ve been included,” said Milton Alanoca Sánchez, 40, a builder who is currently unemployed because of the pandemic. He was born in a small Aymara community on the shores of Lake Titicaca, on the border with Peru.
“People from the countryside have been taken into account in this system of government. Many people from my community are professionals now.”
Polls showed that the MAS could win the election, but campaigners and analysts alike were astonished by the massive margin. “The opposition [to MAS] was unable to convince people that the state that they could run was going to include them in the way that the MAS did,” said Dr Jorge Derpic, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Georgia.
Sunday’s vote was generally peaceful, but there was some tension at the polling stations, according to Hertzler. He spent the day in the lowland, economic hub of Santa Cruz, where the right has strong support. “MAS delegates there expressed concern to me that people were waiting to insult or attack their candidate Brenda Segovia when she came to vote, but these people seemed to disperse when I walked through with my observer hat and credentials,” he told VICE.
The official results will arrive later this week. In the meantime, Bolivians are hoping that Sunday’s election will close a turbulent chapter in the country’s history and mark a move towards stability.
Cover: Early results show Bolivia’s leftist presidential candidate Luis Arce (center), from the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, won a landslide victory in presidential elections this weekend. Credit: Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images