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On 21 February 2016 Bolivians voted in a referendum asking if they wanted to amend the 2009 constitutional rule that limits the President and Vice-President to two consecutive terms in office.
The ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS – Movimiento al Socialismo) wanted its leader, President Evo Morales, to be able to stand for re-election in 2019.
In the referendum, however, the people of Bolivia rejected the constitutional change in what some are seeing as an embarrassing defeat for both Morales and MAS.
With hindsight it may be easy to conclude that calling this referendum was a risky move, as people generally become suspicious of leaders who seek to keep extending their time in office.
Considering his consistent popularity, it is also easy to see why Morales may well have thought that he would not be defeated.
Just as the outcome of the referendum could have gone either way (the result was close: 51% against, 49% in favour), the consequences of the defeat are not just embarrassment for the ruling party, but create a situation of great uncertainty.
Evo Morales has been a high profile figure both in Bolivia and internationally, in part as he is the first president from the Bolivia’s indigenous population and the first president to have emerged from the country’s social movements.
A position on the left and a promise to fight inequality and discrimination against indigenous people first won the election for Morales in 2005 with 54% of the popular vote.
In office, Morales seemed to be keeping his promises. He nationalised natural resources of gas and minerals and levels of poverty began to fall.
With both personal support and support for MAS growing, Morales comfortably won a vote of confidence referendum in 2008 and a constitutional referendum in 2009. In the Presidential elections shortly afterwards, he was re-elected with a decisive 64% of the popular vote, more than twice what the runner-up received, which helps us understand why Morales was confident in the run-up to this February’s referendum.
The defeat was in part the result of an opposition, which, for the first time since Morales became president, was united. Despite being fractured on many other issues, opposition groups could easily unite behind the No campaign to defeat the government.
In addition, a scandal implicating Morales surfaced as the referendum campaign was drawing to a close.
The president not only had to admit fathering a child by his former lover, Gabriela Zapata, but it was disclosed that she now holds an important position in a Chinese engineering firm that has secured over $500 million in government contracts.
Morales may not have foreseen the breaking of the scandal and he may well have believed that he could defeat evan a united opposition. What he does seem to have underestimated, though, is ordinary people’s disapproval of his seeking a fourth term in office.
If the referendum had been successful Morales, would have held power for 20 years. He is already the longest serving president in Bolivian history: if he completes his present term in office in 2020 he will have been in power for 14 consecutive years.
People are grateful both for the stability Evo has brought to the country, especially after a period when Bolivia saw five Presidents come and go in just four years, and for the economic growth that has been achieved. But many fear the prospect of a leader who is never prepared to step down.
Looking to the future
What, though, does this defeat mean for Morales and perhaps more importantly, for MAS itself?
Some commentators have rejoiced in the defeat, seeing it as the beginning of the end of what has proved to be a resilient populist movement. Those hoping that this is indeed the end of MAS point to the examples of other countries in the region in 2015, especially the parliamentary election setback for Maduro in Venezuela and the defeat of Kirchner’s chosed successor in Argentina: significant blows to two of Morales’ allies and fellow left-leaning governments.
In addition, they point to the fact that the Bolivian economy is slowing down. Morales has been popular in part due to a decade of growth averaging 5% a year, but the drop in global commodity prices means such growth is no longer likely.
Paradoxically perhaps, Morales’ personal popularity also seems to favour the opposition. In 2019 MAS will have to put forward another candidate, but nobody within the Movement has anything like the support that the president enjoys.
However, the prospect of this referendum defeat signalling the end of MAS is not as likely as the critics of the Movement might hope.
The opposition may well have united behind the No campaign in the referendum, but in reality they remain deeply divided. The prospect of a united front in a presidential election is so far only a remote possibility.
Also, MAS and Morales still have three years before the next election. This is time enough for a successor to be groomed and efforts made to transfer Morales’ popularity towards the party as a whole. There is enough time for the referendum defeat to be forgotten.
So, a blow yes, but the end of MAS seems less likely. Perhaps Evo Morales was right in his analysis: “We have lost a battle, but not the war”.