Fear and Uncertainty as Bolivians Take to the Polls in First Election since U.S. Sponsored Coup

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On Sunday, Bolivia will hold its first elections since the coup last November. Right-wing realignments make a second round of voting more likely. The conciliatory policy of the MAS weakens and demoralizes those who want to fight, and it strengthens right-wing objectives. We must prepare the workers and the people to independently organize and mobilize.

Supporters of former President Evo Morales' party (MAS) march in El Alto on October 14. Photo: Juan Karita

On Sunday, Bolivia will hold its first election since the coup in November that ousted President Evo Morales. The upcoming elections, which were repeatedly postponed, are taking place as wildfires continue to spread in five eastern regions, surpassing the number of fires last year when agro-industrialists set fire to the entire Chiquitanía, a forest area in the department of Santa Cruz.

The fires are causing enormous economic, social, and environmental damage, and they are harming local and indigenous populations. The coup president, Jeanine Áñez, has shown astonishing inaction in the face of these fires with the aim of further expanding the agricultural frontier at the service of the CAINCO (Chamber of Industry, Commerce, Services and Tourism of Santa Cruz-Bolivia) and the CAO (Eastern Chamber of Agriculture).

Meanwhile, the business class and the coup government are escalating their attacks on the working class. Hundreds of layoffs in the cities of Cochabamba, Sucre, Santa Cruz, and La Paz are leaving working families in increasingly precarious conditions. With brutality and impunity the bosses have been attacking workers, for example in the case of the Vita laboratories and the brutal police intervention in the workers’ strike, in which dozens were arrested.

Unfortunately, the union bureaucracy in many sectors has been complicit with the bosses and the government. Such is the case with the Departmental Federation of Manufacturers of La Paz, which has refused to recognize the leaders of Vita laboratories, instead working with the bosses, who are carrying out criminal proceedings against the workers in order to take advantage of this situation.

Unfortunately, the Movement for Socialism (MAS) union bureaucracy, which at the time did not hesitate to go over to the coup plotters’ side and today “symbolically” takes critical positions, is entrenched in the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana) and in the workers’ headquarters. The union bureaucracy refuses to lead and prepare a real plan of struggle that could stop the layoffs and repression, amid the deep economic and social crisis that Bolivia is experiencing.

Uncertainty and Distrust in the Electoral Process

The elections on Sunday will probably be the most observed elections in the country’s history. Both the MAS and the parties of the coup bloc are going into the elections with deep mutual mistrust, accusing each other of fraud and warning of violence on election day. All these rumors are echoed by both analysts and the population, and they are fed by the events of recent weeks.

Let us remember the several million dollars’ worth of arms purchases from the police and the Armed Forces by Minister of Government Arturo Murillo, two weeks ago. This situation is striking for a “transitional government” that nevertheless acts as if it is going to stay, equipping the repressive forces.

On the other hand, Vice Minister of Public Security Wilson Santamaría has declared that a government order will be imposed that prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol and the carrying of knives and firearms, closes public spaces, and restricts meetings, movement, and other activities. The order will be imposed not only on the two days before the elections, but — strikingly, and unprecedentedly in the country’s history — on the two days after the elections, with the supposed goal of avoiding protest mobilizations or “acts of violence.”

Exacerbating these growing tensions is the recent unexplained loss of weapons from a military naval detachment in the department of Pando. It is striking that something like this happened just a few days before the elections. Minister of Defense Fernando López also recently threatened, on the anniversary of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s assassination, that any foreigner who causes disruptions in the country “will end up dead.” The comments highlight the profoundly reactionary character of the current political situation.

An Attempt to Realign the Coup Forces to Win a Second Round

It is also important to point out a “new” element in this framework: the realignment of the right-wing forces of the coup. Last week, María de la Cruz Bayá of Acción Democrática Nacionalista (ADN), the far-right party of former dictator Hugo Banzer Suárez, decided to withdraw her candidacy. Likewise, last Sunday, Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, of the right-wing Libre 21 party, also dropped out. Quiroga is a former president of Bolivia and served as vice president under the Banzer dictatorship. He also held positions in the Añez government, in which he was a spokesperson for “denying at the international level that there was a coup d’état in Bolivia,” a position he left in January to launch his presidential candidacy.

The Korean-Bolivian candidate and evangelist Chi Hyun Chung and the mining businessman Feliciano Mamani are still in the race. Both are polling very poorly, the first with 2.6 percent of the vote and the second with 0.2 percent. The third force in dispute is the candidacy of the former civic leader of Santa Cruz, one of the central architects of the coup d’état, Luis Fernando Camacho of the Creemos alliance.

Mesa Ties Arce and the Polls Shape the Political Map

In all previous polls, MAS candidate Luis Arce Catacora had a six- to eight-point lead over Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana. Some recent polls even predicted that he would win the first round if he managed to surpass the 40 percent floor with a 10-point lead over Mesa. A poll released this week, however, painted a different picture of the political machinations undertaken throughout the flawed electoral process.

The latest poll published by the newspaper Página Siete and financed by the newspaper’s publishing company, Luna Llena, shows Mesa winning 27.2 percent of the vote, just above Luis Arce at 27.1 percent. According to this survey, Mesa’s vote share increased by five points and Arce’s by two points compared to the previous survey in September. The candidate who improved the most in this last poll was the ultra-right-wing clerical candidate, Fernando Camacho, who was one of the key actors in the coup d’état. Camacho, who openly acknowledged that his father organized the bribery of the armed forces last October to execute the coup, increased his share of votes from 8 to 14 percent.

The poll results change if we eliminate the estimates of null, blank, and undecided votes — over 30 percent of possible votes, according to the Página Siete poll. Mesa would still be in first place with 37.4 percent, followed by Arce with 37.2, and Camacho in third place with 19.2 percent.

Clearly, it is very difficult to believe these polls, since they respond to political interests and the objective of raising Mesa’s profile.

The truth is that beyond the polls, the forces of the right-wing bloc are realigning to secure a second election round by preventing the MAS from winning the first round. The idea is to seek a “more comfortable victory for Mesa” by pressuring Camacho to drop out, even though he has affirmed that he will campaign to the end. Camacho made his decision based on the current polls, which show that his electoral front would win a strong parliamentary bench for the militant and conservative Right, which would strategically position him beyond Sunday’s election.

The large number of undecided voters, who account for almost 20 percent of those polled, still leave a wide margin for speculation and uncertainty.

The Postelectoral Scenario and Social Conflict: Toward a Social Pact with the Coup Plotters?

Although Sunday’s result is unknown, the biggest concern expressed by analysts, journalists, and party leaders is what will happen the day after: How will the coup bloc react if it view the result as unfavorable?

This uncertainty has led European parliamentarians to demand that Karen Longaric, the Bolivian chancellor, commit to respecting the electoral results, whatever they may be. This demand shows the mistrust of what could happen, as well as a possible second round that will prolong the uncertainty and crisis for almost two months.

However, both the spokespersons and supporters of Comunidad Ciudadana, as well as the leaders of MAS, have said there needs to be a political agreement that guarantees governability,  given the economic, social, health, and environmental crisis that Bolivia is facing. 

During these 11 months of the coup government, the MAS has maintained a policy of conciliation and pacts from the very moment that Morales resigned from the presidency, facilitating the consolidation of the Áñez regime on November 17, when it approved a law calling for elections and refusing to discuss Morales’s resignation in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Thus, the MAS facilitated the ascent of the oligarchic bloc once again to the leadership of the state apparatus. We also saw the party collaborate with the coup d’état in the August crisis, in which the workers and popular sectors demanded #FueraÁñez. MAS extinguished the mobilization by betraying the will to struggle and agreeing, once again, on a fourth electoral date.

It is because of these events, which have caused deep unrest in the student, worker, and popular vanguard sectors, that we cannot rule out that even if Mesa’s victory is “irregular,” the MAS leadership will not mobilize resistance to the coup, leaving an eventual resistance to popular spontaneity once again. It is because of this policy of conciliation with the coup plotters and the refusal to promote the mobilization of the masses — actions that have provoked criticism and unrest in the MAS’s electoral bases — that we cannot vote for the MAS. A vote for the MAS would mean endorsing policies that weaken the workers and popular forces, and would demoralize the vanguard groups that want to defeat the coup plotters. It is with this vanguard that we, from the Revolutionary Workers League–Fourth International (LORCI), have been promoting the biggest united front for the struggle.

We know that the relationship of forces between the classes will not be defined at the ballot box, as the MAS candidates suggest, but in the streets, in the factories, in the workshops, in various sectors of the workers of the country, in both the countryside and the city. We are not neutral, which is why we call for vigilance to the possible violation of the democratic rights of the great majority of workers, and to mobilize to prevent any attempt at fraud or Bonapartist coups. This vigilance and call for organization and mobilization does not mean support for the conciliatory and peaceful policy of the MAS, but rather a militant defense of democratic rights and against the coup and right-wing maneuvers to violate them.

For these reasons, we must begin to discuss, with our neighbors, workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, women, and youth, the need to recover our neighborhoods, unions, communities, and student organizations. We must put these places at the service of the struggle against the coup, against layoffs, and against attacks on living conditions. We have been insisting throughout these months, in dialogue with tens if not hundreds of independent activists and those linked to the MAS with whom, despite our different electoral views, we have built a relationship in the streets, in resistance to the coup, the need to promote various forms of self-organization and coordination of the struggles underway. We must prepare and organize self-defense committees in the face of attacks and persistent harassment and threats from paramilitary groups such as the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) or the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala (RJC), to prevent new and more attacks on workers’ and people’s right to protest.

This must be accompanied by a program that allows us to confront the crisis and the attacks by the bosses and the government, by promoting the prohibition of layoffs and the nationalization without payment of any company that closes or lays off workers, the establishment of a single state bank controlled by its workers, to end speculation and enrichment by the big bankers and financiers, in order to be able to give cheap credit to the peasant movement and to small producers.

The pandemic has revealed the precariousness of the health system. The healthcare bosses have not stopped profiting from the right to life, relying on the “mixed” system established by the MAS, which was maintained thanks to the precarious conditions of the health care workers. With the coup plotters, the situation was aggravated by the scandalous corrupt deals they made with the purchase of “respirators” and biosafety equipment. Only the organized workers can offer a way out that includes demanding the nationalization of the health system, without compensation, and that its operation be placed in the hands of its workers, who are the ones who know the real needs for putting resources at the service of saving lives.

Just days before the election, the situation is very fluid, and although the result of October 18 is uncertain, we are sure that a new cycle of class struggle is coming and that we must prepare for it. That is why we have fought together with the popular sectors during the coup and later in these 11 months of the Áñez government, discussing how to confront the coup d’état and the economic, social, racist, environmental, and cultural attacks on the workers, campesinos, and native peoples. We must also discuss steps to advance in the construction of a political tool that, independently of the coup plotters and the conciliators, will prepare us to defeat them and prepare the way for the socialist construction of society.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on October 13 in La Izquierda Diario

Translated by: Otto Fors

About author

Javo Ferreira

Javo Ferreira

Javo is a leading member of the Revolutionary Workers League — Fourth International (LOR-CI) and an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario Bolivia. He is author of the book Comunidad, indigenismo y marxismo (Community, Indigenism, and Marxism).