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The Far-Left Wins Back Power in Bolivia. What Does That Mean for the Country’s Future?

7 minute read

Almost a year after Bolivian president Evo Morales fled his country amid unrest over his perceived attempt to steal a fourth term in office, his party is set to return to power, claiming a decisive victory in a high-stakes presidential election and launching a new era for the country’s far left.

Movement for Socialism’s new leader Luis Arce, a 57-year-old former economy minister, won 52.4% of the vote, according to a private poll for two broadcasters. The official result is expected to take several days to emerge, but the projections put Arce well ahead of the centrist former president Carlos Mesa, on 31.5%. Arce, whose technocratic style sets him apart from Morales’ populist touch, needed 50%, or a ten point lead over the second place candidate, to win without a second round.

The run up to the election has been tense in Bolivia. The rightwing-led interim government, which took power after Morales’ ouster, delayed the vote twice, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The delays, combined with provocative changes to Bolivia’s foreign policy and secular state procedures, and interim president Jeanine Añez’s decision to run for the presidency, had stoked fears that the interim government was making a power grab of its own. But Añez congratulated Arce on Monday. “I ask the winners to govern thinking of Bolivia and democracy,” she said on Twitter.

The result heralds a more stable end to a chaotic year in Bolivia, says Christopher Sabatini, a senior researcher fellow for Latin America at Chatham House and founder of Americas Quarterly. “This is a sign that Bolivia’s democracy is strong,” he says. “The result shows that MAS is not a personal machine [for Morales]. It speaks to the fact that Bolivia’s people make choices not necessarily based on leaders, but on pragmatic lines.”

Here’s what to know about Bolivia’s election results.

Who is Evo Morales and why did he leave Bolivia last year?

A former labor union leader and the first president to belong to Bolivia’s large Indigenous population, Morales spent a record 13 and a half years in power and built up huge popularity, presiding over strong economic growth, cuts to poverty and the expansion of Indigenous rights. But when he asked voters to give him the right to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term at a referendum in 2016, 51% said no.

Morales effectively ignored that vote, and in October 2019 he ran for re-election anyway. During the vote count, Morales appeared to be headed into a second round run-off with centrist Mesa. But then electoral authorities suspended updates for 24 hours. When they restarted, Morales had enough votes to avoid a second round. Mass protests broke out, led by right-leaning business leaders in Santa Cruz, and electoral observers from the Washington-based Organization of American States declared that there boost in Morales’ vote share was an “an inexplicable change”. Under mounting pressure, Morales resigned and fled Bolivia.

Morales and his supporters accuse the U.S., multinational corporations, and the OAS of colluding to push Morales out, drawing on a long history of U.S. interventions against leftwing governments in Latin America. A New York Times investigation later found the OAS’ initial statistical analysis of the election—announced hours after Morales claimed victory and a major spark for anti-Morales protests—was flawed. The study by independent researchers did not discount evidence of electoral fraud published by the OAS in December, though.

Who is Luis Arce?

Known widely as “Lucho,” Arce served as Morales’ economy minister and led the nationalisation of the mining industry – which helped to power the administration’s economic success as commodity prices rose in the 2000s. With a Masters degree in economics from the U.K.’s Warwick University, Arce is “one of the few technocrats in MAS,” Sabatini says. “He’s level headed and – from what I’ve seen – he doesn’t engage in inflammatory rhetoric.”

In his first speech after the poll results, Arce said he would build a government of national unity. “We’re going to work and resume the process of change without hate, and learning and overcoming our errors as MAS.”

What has Morales’s reaction been to the race?

He did not abandon Bolivia’s political stage after his troubled departure from office. From Argentina, where the leftist government granted him political asylum, the former president made a series of interventions in the campaign. Using Twitter and media interviews, he railed against the U.S., the interim government and referred to media critical of MAS as “enemy number one.” When MAS’ victory was announced on Monday, Morales said he would return to Bolivia “sooner or later.”

What propelled the MAS to victory?

Marcelo Arequipa, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Bolivia, says MAS’s campaign overcame last year’s controversy for two reasons. “The first was an important spirit of self-criticism about Evo Morales and his inner circle.” Though Arce was Morales’ chosen successor, and agreed with his former boss that the interim government had “taken power by force”, he distanced himself from his former boss’s more inflammatory statements during the campaign. Arce’s chosen vice-president, David Choquehuanca, was an opponent of Morales’ decision to run for a fourth term and has pledged that Morales’ inner circle would not be powerful in the new MAS administration.

That distancing allowed MAS to talk up the positive economic legacy of the Morales years – and Arce’s role in it – while also bringing in voters who were angered by the former president’s power grab.

The “anti-MAS” parties, including Mesa’s centrist Citizen Community alliance and smaller rightwing forces, Arequipa says, focused their campaigns “more on fear [of MAS returning to power]. They acted as if politics was the most important thing, when we know that this year the economy is the most important.”

Rightwing forces have long struggled to break through in Bolivia’s modern politics. Añez, the interim president and a rightwing senator, abandoned her campaign in September when it became clear she didn’t have popular support. Luis Fernando Camacho, a rightwing Catholic lawyer who led anti-Morales protest last year, won 14.1% of the vote, according to the private polls. A relatively poor, small country, Bolivia doesn’t have the powerful business sectors or middle classes who tend to make up the bases of center right or rightwing parties in other Latin American countries, Sabatini says

What do the results mean for Bolivia’s future?

Arce’s first priority will be to deal with the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Bolivia has suffered more than 139,000 cases and more than 8,500 deaths in a population of 11 million people, putting it in the middle of the crowd for infection rates per million people among Latin American countries. But Bolivia’s largely informal economy has been badly hit by quarantine measures, with an economic contraction of almost 6% forecast by the end of 2020. The government’s ability to revive the growth and protect vulnerable sectors – key motors of MAS’s popularity during the Morales years – will likely determine Arce’s own success in governing, analysts say.

The political upheaval of the last year appears to be easing off, but to ensure a stable government, Arequipa says Arce needs to fulfil his promise to build unity, and get to work building strong alliances with politicians, unions and the business community. “We’ve just come out of political intensive care,” he says. “When you leave intensive care you don’t go straight home. You need to recover. That’s going to mark what comes next.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com