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Bolivia goes to polls as left-wing icon Evo Morales seeks unprecedented fourth term

David Mercado, REUTERS | Bolivia's President and current presidential candidate for the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party Evo Morales speaks during a closing campaign rally in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, October 15, 2019.

Bolivia votes in the first round of its presidential elections on Sunday with Evo Morales seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the career of the country’s first indigenous president – a hero to many previously marginalised Bolivians but increasingly under fire.

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A former llama shepherd in the Andes who built his career as the head of a coca growers’ union, Morales swept to power in the 2005 presidential vote, amid the decade’s “pink tide” in South America, which saw the election of left-wing governments across the continent.

After his inauguration the following year, Morales transformed the country with a radical reform programme. In doing so, he broke with Bolivia’s colonial past and restored pride to many indigenous people. Even the IMF – an unlikely fan for a leader who has so explicitly renounced the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” – has praised Bolivia’s economic performance under Morales.

But as he stands for a fourth term in the first round of voting on October 20, Morales has come in for increasing criticism from various different sectors of the population – in a continent where a right-wing resurgence seems to have replaced the pink tide amid last year’s elections of reactionary populist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and conservative Ivan Duque in Colombia.

>> REPORTERS: Bolivia, the Evo Morales years

Morales’ government instated a new constitution in 2009, which officially renamed the country “The Plurinational State of Bolivia” – a name change designed to recognise the diversity of indigenous communities and languages there. According to the 2012 census, based on self-definition, 60 percent of Bolivians call themselves mestizos, 37 percent say they belong to an indigenous group (mainly Aymara and Quechua), 3 percent say they are white and 1 percent Afro-Bolivian.

The Wiphala – the colourful flag of the indigenous people of the Andes – has become an official emblem of the country, often displayed alongside the traditional Bolivian tricolour. Likewise, the text enshrining equal treatment of all citizens before the law and the prohibition of all forms of discrimination is widely displayed in shops and public facilities.

In the western city of El Alto – the highest major conurbation in the world, at an altitude of 4000 metres – Morales’ policies have contributed to the emergence of a new Aymara bourgeoisie. From owners of transport companies to mining entrepreneurs and small traders, many Aymara (the group to which Morales belongs) are keen to display both their economic success and their pride in their own culture.

An economic miracle

Bolivia boasts the second largest national gas reserves in South America. Soon after his election in 2006, Morales nationalised numerous oil and gas companies. Following a series of negotiations with the multinationals present in the country, his government gave itself the right to 80 percent of the total revenue from oil and gas extraction, compared to just 20 percent previously.

This money gave Morales’ government the means to fund generous social programmes – boosting funding for healthcare, education and pensions – as well as a major plan to develop public infrastructure, especially energy and transport.

This Keynesian approach has borne fruit. Over the last 10 years, Bolivia has enjoyed an annual growth rate of between 4 and 6 percent, multiplying the country’s GDP by three and allowing the poverty rate to be halved – although many analysts have argued that this cycle is coming to an end and that economic headwinds lie ahead.

Morales has won every vote hands down since 2005, with the notable exception of a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians narrowly voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the president to stand for a fourth term. Nevertheless, this was overruled by a controversial Supreme Court decision the subsequent year, which allowed Morales to compete in Sunday’s poll.

A divided opposition

Indeed, over the years many have lambasted Morales for what they see as his sometimes authoritarian methods and a cult of personality surrounding his presidency.

In Bolivia’s economic capital Santa Cruz de la Sierra, many members of the business community and the largely white elite in the east of the country have trenchantly opposed Morales ever since his election. Some such figures have demanded regional autonomy and even threatened the secession of the country’s eastern provinces. That said, after negotiations with Morales, parts of the country’s conservative eastern elite arrived at an entente cordiale with his government, which proffered them big olive branches on issues like mining, deforestation and the distribution of oil money.

Meanwhile many of the president’s supporters in western Bolivia have become disillusioned with Morales. “We created a middle class and at the same time it’s that middle class that turned against us,” Alvaro Garcia Linera, Morales’ vice president, told FRANCE 24. “That’s what happens when you raise living standards: it goes the other way and it begins to diminish. Some of the indigenous movement has now left us. We lose allies on one side; but we gain allies on another side.”

At the same time, environmentalists have denounced what they see as the hypocrisy of a president who often invokes “Mother Earth” at the same time as promoting the exploitation of Bolivia’s natural resources, to the detriment of the planet and indigenous communities alike.

However, the kind of Bolivians who are angry at Morales over such issues don’t easily align with conservative elites who remain unenamoured of the social democratic direction in which he has taken the country – making the opposition heterogeneous to the point of being highly divided.

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