A woman follows a march for peace in the center of La Paz while wearing a wiphala. November 18, 2019. Photo: Radoslaw Czajkowski / Shutterstock.com

After a landslide comes a balancing act for Bolivia’s MAS

  • November 4, 2020

People & Power

After a historic MAS comeback, President-elect Arce has to balance hard-right calls for a military coup with demands for justice from his base.

It was the fireworks that announced to La Paz that Bolivia’s election results were in. Ballot boxes had closed at five o’clock in a jittery and heavily militarized election on October 18. With the quick count system suspended, the country waited for hours, tense as a coiled spring. Then, the silent streets rang out with booms that, for once, did not signal a protest: the first results were in.

Just after midnight, pollsters released preliminary results that amazed the country: Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of the leftwing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) ticket were on course for a landslide victory. When the chips were down a few days later, the MAS had 55.1 percent of the vote, while centrist runner-up Carlos Mesa of the Civic Community (Comunidad Ciudadana) coalition scored just 28.8 percent.

The result was all the more remarkable because of the circumstances: less than a year earlier, controversial allegations of electoral fraud ended in a violent right-wing coup against the MAS government of Evo Morales. But for president-elect Luis Arce, this historic victory is less happy-ever-after and more the twelve labors of Hercules.

In pursuit of justice

Arce will lead a country that remains painfully divided. At the top of his supporters’ list are demands for justice. Some 36 people lost their lives in the violence around the coup, while hundreds more were injured. Some of the fallen were protesting against Morales, but most died in massacres under the interim government of religious conservative interim president, Jeanine Áñez.

Security forces gunned down ten protesters in Sacaba as they tried to march to the city of Cochabamba; witnesses saw snipers shooting from a helicopter. Four days later, ten more protesters were shot dead as they blockaded a gas plant in the El Alto neighborhood of Senkata.

Before these killings started, Áñez signed a decree exempting security forces from criminal responsibility for actions taken to pacify the country. When they were done slaughtering people, the interim government passed another decree that purported to offer victims’ families “reparations” of 50,000 Bolivianos (around $7,250) on the condition that they would not take their cases to international courts.

Human rights organizations — including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic — have said the killings in Senkata and Sacaba constitute massacres: “…it is appropriate to describe these events as massacres, given the number of people who lost their lives in the same way and at the same time and place, and because the acts in question were committed against a specific group of people,” the IACHR said in its preliminary report. It added that its findings indicated extrajudicial killings and “grave” human rights violations.

The interim government claims it did not shoot anyone, and — perversely — that the protesters must have shot among themselves. In the case of Senkata, they have also argued that the protesters planned to blow up the gas plant. Despite extensive research conducted by internationally respected human rights organizations, many people continue to believe the state’s narratives.

It will be the job of Arce’s government to seek justice for these crimes. The outgoing administration has just approved a report into the killings which recommended trials against Áñez and several of the top figures in her government, including minister of government Arturo Murillo and defense minister Fernando López. Áñez claims she will stay in the country to face charges, but many onlookers do not believe her.

The incoming government’s pursuit of justice will inevitably be attacked by its opponents as a politically-motivated vengeance mission. Following the coup, the interim government engaged in a witch hunt against MAS. In January, it announced that it would pursue investigations against nearly 600 former government officials. Charges such as terrorism, sedition and crimes against humanity, were tossed about like confetti at a wedding, and with about as much sincerity.

One month before the elections, Human Rights Watch weighed in, accusing the interim leadership of abusing the justice system to pursue “baseless or disproportionate charges, due process violations, infringement of freedom of expression, and excessive and arbitrary use of pretrial detention.” The watchdog found that over 100 people with connections to the MAS government were being criminally investigated for sedition and terrorism.

The report also noted that Morales had also abused the justice system during his presidency. At the time of writing, several former MAS leaders are still holed up in the Mexican embassy in La Paz and Morales himself remains in political exile in Argentina.

However lightly they tread, it will be impossible for the incoming government to pursue justice without someone yelling about how unfair they are being. But in order to stop history from repeating itself, it is vital that the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice.

Two-faced “defenders” of democracy

Scene at a polling station in La Paz, Bolivia. Photo by Amy Booth

Fairness will not just be an issue in the pursuit of justice. Despite the usual rumours that dead people were registered to vote and ballot boxes were stuffed in advance, the election that swept Arce to victory has been credited as a clean win both nationally and internationally.

It was a punch in the gut to opponents of MAS, who had erupted into jubilant street parties when Morales was forced to resign, proclaiming it not as a coup, but a democratic revolution. Democracy was already on the agenda because Morales had ignored the results of a 2016 referendum that would have prevented him running for re-election.

After the Organization of American States said they suspected “irregularities” in the 2019 election, protest groups rallied around the cry that they were “defending democracy.” Now, the landslide victory for MAS is prompting uncomfortable questions about those claims.

Some are insisting this election was fraudulent, while others are kneeling in the streets praying for a military coup. Images circulating on social media stated: “I support the constitutional transition of power to a military junta,” prompting fact checking site Bolivia Verifica to issue a notice that military juntas are not, in fact, constitutional.

These sectors have already picked fights with more moderate opponents of MAS: Andrea Barrientos, the senator who will head up Mesa’s party in the senate, was hit in the head by a bottle when she tried to engage with far-right protesters in Cochabamba.

These groups are a belligerent minority and their more outlandish objections will not get much serious attention within the political system. But they cannot be dismissed, either. Violent, extremist anti-MAS motorbike gangs such as the Cochabamba Youth Resistance (Resistencia Juvenil Cochala) sprang up during the coup and the right’s year in power. Some of them have physically assaulted and hurled racist, sexist abuse at indigenous people. They are also connected to potentially deadly attacks such as the stabbing of journalist Adair Pinto outside a bar earlier this year.

Human rights groups found that they seemed to be working with, or at least tolerated by, the police, while Áñez and her cabinet praised them as heroes. This prompted concerns that they were acting as para-state groups. Even outside the mainstream political system, street violence and bigotry from these groups is likely to remain a problem.

Within parliament and civil society, right-wingers and centrists who do not like the election results will fight tooth and nail over everything the MAS tries to do, making it difficult to govern. The fight has already started.

The outgoing assembly, in which MAS had a two-thirds majority, voted to change some decisions from requiring a two-thirds supermajority to a simple majority, meaning that in the incoming assembly — where MAS has a majority, but not a supermajority — MAS will have the power to put certain decisions through without securing the support of anyone from the opposition. It affects issues including the promotion of key army and police positions, the selection of ambassadors, filibusters, and changing the daily agenda.

The changes go beyond the mere administrative tweaks the MAS is claiming, making the party less dependent on consensus. But despite the opposition’s claims, they are not exactly riding rough-shod over hallowed democratic institutions, either. There is no way the people out in the streets protesting these measures would be there if Mesa had made the same decision.

A long road ahead

For most Bolivians, whether there’s food on the table is more important than whether diplomats are selected by supermajority. At the polls, there was a pervasive sense that a vote for MAS was a vote for jobs: the last government under Morales slashed poverty and extreme poverty, pumping the proceeds from nationalizing major industries into benefits for schoolchildren and various vulnerable groups. Arce, an economist often described as a technocrat, was Evo’s finance minister at the time and is widely credited with that success.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the global economy, many of Arce’s voters are holding out for him to pull off the same feat again. Sympathetic analysts point out that Bolivia bucked the trend in 2008, continuing to grow despite the global financial crisis. But Arce himself is clearly under no illusion about the challenge at hand.

He has said his government will prioritize domestic industrialization and import substitution over a dreaded devaluation of the peso, which would send prices spiralling and probably usher in inflation. MAS is especially popular among the Indigenous and working-class poor, exactly the groups who will be hardest hit if the economy tanks.

How the MAS’ bases would react if that happens, we do not know — as always, inevitable right-wing arguments about “the next Venezuela” are best consigned to the discursive dustbin. The incoming administration is hoping they will not have to find out.

But with COVID-19-induced poverty creeping, an embittered right poised to scupper this government any way it can, and deafening cries for justice from communities bearing fresh wounds of military brutality, Arce will have to perform a world-class balancing act to bring Bolivia out ahead. He has both the training and the political experience for the job. The road ahead is long and littered with obstacles. The question is whether he can walk it.

Amy Booth

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. She covers human rights, politics and society in Bolivia and Argentina for international publications including Vice, The Guardian, Al Jazeera and New Internationalist.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/bolivia-mas-arce-president/

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