By Aisha Ali
This past January, Bolivia celebrated the 10-year anniversary of President Evo Morales’ historic inauguration as the country’s first indigenous president. A presidential parade in La Paz and a trending topic on Twitter, #10AñosConEvo (10 Years with Evo), highlighted the changes Morales made over the last decade. During his five-hour speech to congress on the same day, Morales specifically addressed how his administration has turned around the Bolivian economy: external debt (as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product) has reduced from 67% in 2005 to 17% in 2015, while spending on education incentive programs has doubled in the same period.
On the heels of these 10-year anniversary celebrations, initial polls expected Bolivian voters to approve a referendum proposed by Morales, which would allow him to alter constitutional term limits and run for the fourth time as a presidential candidate. A win in the 2019 election would have made Morales one of the longest sitting presidents in the region, extending his rule to 2025 and adding up to nearly 20 consecutive years in office. In order for the referendum to pass, Morales needed 70% of Bolivians to vote in favor of the changes. When the final numbers came in last week, only 48.67% of the population voted ‘Yes’, and the referendum failed to pass.
The breakdown of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes were drastically different by department, or subdivision, which was largely due to where Bolivians have seen the most progress during Morales’ rule – or lack of. The Departments of Oruro, Cochabamba, and La Paz were mainly in favor of the referendum as ‘Yes’ beat out ‘No’ by nearly 10 percentage points in each area. The local governments of Oruro and Cochabamba, headed by members of Morales’ party MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo / Movement for Socialism), while La Paz’s governor Félix Patzi, a former MAS member, came out strongly against the referendum. In fact, some of the loudest opponents to the referendum were ex-MAS supporters and allies concerned about Morales’ possible extended rule and its effect on Bolivian democracy. Other opposition voters based their decision on Morales’ perceived ‘neglect’ of their regions and interests, particularly indigenous groups in the Amazon affected by the proposed TIPNIS highway, as well as people in the growing urban middle class. Bolivia’s younger population also voted primarily against the referendum, an indication of changing opinions on Morales and MAS among younger voters eager to see new leaders rather than the old guard.
Even among those who voted ‘Yes’, there is a growing suspicion of Morales’ hyper-focus on the development of Bolivia’s extraction industries. During the first half of his presidency, Bolivia took a leadership role in environmental protection under the overarching development principle of ‘vivir bien’ (living well). Since then, German and Chinese companies have been competing to invest in the development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves in Potosí, which constitutes 70% of the world’s total endowment. The development of these reserves could potentially net millions of dollars for the Bolivian government and its partners, which is why Morales’ government has already pledged to invest over $600 million in the project between now and 2019. Neither the government nor Morales have yet to address the environmental consequences of lithium production, particularly desertification of the area and water contamination. Petroleum, which has its own set of environmental concerns, accounts for 48% of Bolivia’s annual exports and an estimated 19% of GDP. Nationalization of the oil and natural gas industry, spearheaded by Morales’ government during his first term, has been the main factor in Bolivia’s relatively steady 5.5% GDP growth rate over the last few years. But declining commodity prices in 2015 could negatively impact Bolivia’s economy if oil prices fall too low, causing the country to lose its spot as Latin America’s strongest economy.
Regardless of the ‘No’ majority, Evo Morales still has one more term to finish as president of Bolivia. A new development plan for the country, the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2016-2020, was introduced last year and will focus government efforts on diversifying exports, implementing infrastructure improvements, and increasing investment in public programs. In the meantime, MAS and opposition parties will need to start looking for a candidate to succeed Morales in 2019.