The democratic machine ground into action in Bolivia on 21st February as voters went to the polls to vote to amend the constitution to allow incumbent president Evo Morales to stand for a 4th term in 2019. The result? A narrow win for the “No” campaign, scraping home with 51.3% of the popular vote. And on an 84.5% turnout, it can hardly be said that the people haven’t made themselves heard.
2016 marks 10 years of rule for Mr Morales, a former coca planter, champion of indigenous rights and now Bolivia’s longest-serving premier. He can certainly look back on his tenure with a degree of pride: the nation’s GDP has increased threefold since 2006, with poverty almost halving over the same period. And with 4 more years still on the clock, Evo is going nowhere in a hurry; as his supporters on Twitter were quick to make clear, “#LaLuchaContinúa”.
Yet the result will come as a blow to Mr Morales’ personal pride; a leader famed for his popular touch, he had yet to taste defeat in elections to public office and had even seen consistent increases in his share of the vote. It is also a setback for his all-conquering Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), which will now be forced to seek a replacement for its talisman ahead of the 2019 election, as well as facing uncomfortable questions about the failure of the “Sí” campaign in traditional party strongholds like the mining town of Potosí.
There is plenty of time for analysis and soul-searching post-referendum, but a few reasons behind this turn of events stand out. As with so many countries in the region, the spectre of autocracy still haunts the Bolivian political scene. The military dictatorship of Hugo Banzer is still very much in living memory, naturally prejudicing voters against extending presidential terms, be it by democratic methods or otherwise.
In more current terms, the plunge in global commodity prices, particularly the natural gas on which the Morales economic miracle piggy-backed, has weakened economic growth, putting the squeeze on the country’s emerging middle class and leading some to question the president’s macroeconomic policies.
Last, and by no means least, Evo finds himself in the unusual position of being hit by scandal; recent revelations include a murky episode in 2007 involving a relationship with an executive of a Chinese engineering company, a now-deceased lovechild and $500 million of Bolivian government contracts. The Morales camp strenuously denies any wrongdoing, accusing his opponents of waging a “dirty war” on social media, but it is difficult to deny the personal damage these allegations will have done to their hitherto-unsullied leader in the run-up to the referendum.
Certainly defeat in the plebiscite is a knock-back for the revolución democrática y cultural in Bolivia and rounds off a bad few months for left-wing governments in Latin America as a whole; the triumph of the opposition MUD in Venezuelan parliamentary elections in December being swiftly accompanied by the election of the centre-right Macri government in Argentina.
However, 2019 is unlikely to see Mr Morales waltz off into the sunset; he may not be the official MAS candidate for the presidency, but given his aura on the Bolivian political stage, it seems highly probable that the nation’s most charismatic politician since its eponymous liberator will continue to wield significant influence.
Yet as ex-president, and long-term opponent, Carlos Mesa hinted in an enigmatic tweet, while the ideals and prosperity brought by the Morales government may be dear to the hearts of the Bolivian people, Evo may be more disposable than he would like to think.