Evo Morales Is No Longer Invincible, But It's Not Because Bolivia Is Moving to the Right

Results so far show Morales losing Sunday’s referendum that could allow him a fourth term, but the leftist president is clinging to the hope that rural votes not yet counted will give him victory in the end.
February 23, 2016, 9:40pm
Imagen por Martín Alipaz/EPA

The leftist administration of Bolivia's President Evo Morales is struggling to accept that it has probably lost Sunday's referendum to allow him a fourth term in office.

With 88.6 percent of the votes counted by Tuesday afternoon, the "No" campaign had won 52.6 percent, against 47.4 percent for those approving the controversial measure. Even though the gap was narrowing, Morales would still need to win more than 70 percent of the remaining votes to pull off a surprise triumph.

Morales has grabbed at the glimmer of hope offered by votes from poor rural areas, where the president's support is strongest, that could still take days to be officially registered. Some boxes in remote corners of the Andes and the Amazon have to be collected on foot or by boat.

"Evidently, they don't like us very much [in the cities]," Morales said at a press conference on Monday at which he refused to accept the partial result.

The indigenous Aymara former coca leaf grower also blamed the likes of Twitter and Facebook for stoking opposition to his government.

"I don't know if we have been experts in social media," the president said. "I'll repeat; social media, with their lies, did damage. We are convinced of it."

Vice President Álvaro García went further on Tuesday.

He accused the opposition of trying to manipulate the result through protests outside rural polling stations and cries that the "Yes" camp had stopped them voting in some areas.

"This will be decided by just a few votes and we will be alert to make sure that no one makes off with, and robs, the vote of the people," García said. "This is electoral thuggery and it is an attempt at electoral fraud that we have been seeing in recent hours by opposition forces of the right against the campesino vote and the indigenous vote."

If confirmed, the referendum defeat would mark Morales' first significant electoral reverse since his historic victory in December 2006's presidential elections.

That made him the first indigenous president since Bolivia won its independence from Spain in 1825, despite the fact that the country has an indigenous majority.

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During his 10 years in power, Morales, 56, has re-nationalized the oil and gas industry, and invested heavily in social programs for the poor. He also booted the Drug Enforcement Administration out of the country, and asserted Bolivians' right to grow and chew coca leaves, the mild, traditional Andean stimulant that is also the key ingredient in cocaine.

His statist economic policies have also largely avoided the pitfalls and constant conflicts of Venezuela's "Bolivarian" socialist model. Annual per capita income rose from $1,233 dollars in 2006 to $3,124 dollars by the end of 2014.

Morales has already been reelected twice, in 2009 and 2014, and oversaw the rewriting of the constitution in 2008 — the same constitution he is now hoping to amend.

But the president has also been accused of authoritarianism, including targeting opposition politicians with trumped up court cases, and tolerating corruption. And despite lofty speeches about the Pachamama or Earth Mother, he has also overseen the ramping up of Bolivia's gas and mining sectors and attempted to push freeways through the Amazon.

In recent weeks, his government has been rocked by the revelation that a former girlfriend Gabriela Zapata — who was 18 when she met the firebrand coca union leader in 2005 — now holds a senior position at CAMC, a Chinese company that has won contracts worth nearly $600 million dollars from Morales' government.

"I don't think it ever occurred to Morales that he might lose," Ludwig Valverde, chairman of the Association of Political Scientists of La Paz, told VICE News. "He proposed this referendum. No one was asking for it, and now, after his expectations have been turned on their head, he is finding it difficult to see the result rationally and clearly."

Valverde said fears of Morales concentrating too much power in his own hands was what had prompted the tight referendum result.

Related: The Year the 'Pink Tide' Turned: Latin America in 2015

"What Bolivians are saying with this result is that they want a better quality of government, more efficient, more effective, and more transparent," he said.

He also insisted that Bolivia was not turning rightwards or following in the footsteps of Argentina and Venezuela.

Late last year Argentines voted to put a right winger, Mauricio Macri, in power after a 12-year era of left wing rule headed by President Nestor Kirchner followed by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Venezuela, the opposition won a majority in the National Assembly, for the first time since the late 1990s.

"Concluding that Bolivia is turning rightwards would be very mistaken," Valverde said. "This country has had a traumatic experience with rightwing governments, which have been abusive and corrupt. This is about how the MAS [the Spanish initials of Morales' Movement for Socialism party] also became embroiled in corruption."

Pablo Stefanoni, an Argentine expert on Bolivia and editor of political magazine New Society, widened the argument to question the widespread impression that the left is losing ground throughout the region. What is happening, he said, is that governments that have been in power for a long time are getting mired in scandal and economic mismanagement.

"The right has adopted a discourse like [European] social democracy. Everyone in Latin America is in favor of social inclusion and ending poverty," he said. "It would be very difficult to win power in Latin America without addressing that."

Related: Bolivia's President Morales Insists He Hasn't Lost Re-Election Referendum — Yet

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