Luis Arce, the Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate, won the Bolivian election on 18 October by a landslide. This is good news for the left in Latin America: a show of resistance against a coup of militarists and fundamentalist Christians, and largely a result of mass demonstrations and direct action by the organised left, Andean peasants and indigenous communities.
However, Arce’s election does not mean a change from the ways that trapped the left in the situation before the coup, nor is he a direct continuation of Morales’ government.
The November 2019 coup in Bolivia happened after suspected fraud in Morales’ fourth re-election. Morales had to seek a law change in order to run for election and did so after a plebiscite voted “no” to increasing the maximum number of terms presidents could be in power for.
The conservative right took advantage of the unrest due to the process and other earlier government let-downs (like the inability to deal with massive fires in the Bolivian Amazon). It linked arms with evangelical churches (on the rise in all Latin America, taking up a gap left by lack of a properly organised labour movement) and the armed forces to stage a coup.
Jeanine Añez was the interim president after Morales’ exile, stating when she took power that “the bible was coming back to Congress”. Her government repressed protests brutally, opening fire at demonstrators, killing at least 28 people. Añez’s government also dealt terribly with the pandemic, leading the Bolivian health system to collapse.
Lockdown was later imposed, but little was done to guarantee the livelihood of people left without an income, 60% of whom are in informal work. Instead, the government (but also politicians from the MAS) focused on legalising the use of chlorine dioxide, a bleaching agent used as a “miracle cure” for COVID-19. The government also created laws against people that “misinform” about the pandemic, citing Luis Arce by name when presenting it.
Partly because of gross mishandling of the pandemic, leading massive numbers of people back into poverty, Añez’s government did not gain traction with and support from other Latin American far-right governments, and lost in the first round to Morales’ MAS. For all of Morales’ faults, he got into power as an activist leadership from the indigenous and coke-growing movement.
His successor Arce, on the other hand, is an accountant, worked most of his life in public office, and was the Minister for the Economy in Morales’ administration.
Arce was chosen after “hours of meetings” by the leadership of MAS, including ex-president Morales, without any democratic process where the grassroots of the party could have a say in who would be the next presidential candidate. Arce’s starting point, both from a personal and political level, is already more bureaucratised and further to the right than Morales’.
Arce promises his government will improve health provisions to deal with Covid-19, stabilise the economy post pandemic and “unite a ruptured nation”, not the radical policy to be expected from what many would call the Bolivian far-left. Arce seems to shy away from presenting concrete policy on disempowering the army, guaranteeing freedom of protest and expanding progressive economic and democratic reforms — the problems that led the left to the situation it is in.
Nor does he seem to be keen to re-democratise MAS or give power to any of the mass movements that have helped end the coup and put him in power.