August 31, 2014

The Problem With the Bolivian Opposition


It is becoming increasingly obvious the coming general elections in October will present very little challenge to the Morales government. That is because, on the one side, the opposition seems to be doing very little to position itself as a real alternative to the current government. On the other side, things seem to be going just as the government wants.

The opposition has not been able to distinguish itself as a real alternative. Instead of closing ranks to challenge the MAS' hegemonic position in Bolivian politics, it chose to split itself in several groups (PDC, UD, MSM), which are now taking part in the electoral process with their own candidates, their own platforms and their own ideas. Now, one can only speculate as to why the opposition decided to divide instead of converge. Perhaps no leader was willing to make place for the other? The one sure result from all this is that the opposition's vote is effectively divided. In a system where there is a second round and where there are provisions that would prevent a second round if the winner has sufficient distance to the second placed candidate, to run separately and divide the votes an opposition would get seems just crazy.

Further, by dividing itself, the opposition seems to have renounced to present an identifiable ideology which could counter that of the government's. Morales and the MAS have been able to build a seemingly convincing ideological discourse on what Bolivia is and what it should look like in the future, namely indigenous, anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist. What is more, they have been able to make that discourse the dominant one, which is most important in political terms. The opposition, in contrast, although it seems to advocate more moderate social democratic ideas, has not been able to reach the electorate with those same ideas and arguments. Instead, it seems incoherently determined to conduct its campaign with the strategy: politics as usual. This means merely to try to differentiate itself from the "opponent" by highlighting what the other does or has done wrong. Well, this might be useful in electoral campaigns in places such as the US, however what the Bolivian opposition is achieving with such strategy this time is, first, the alienation of the Bolivian electorate, and second, the closing of the ranks in and around the MAS and Morales.

Moreover, the opposition has not been able to respond to the needs and preferences of a relatively corporatist society, whose corporate groups have increasingly sought to gain political relevance and decision-making power. If there is one thing remarkable about the MAS, is that as the political instrument of the social movements, it has been able to fulfill its raison d'etre. That means, the social movements and the different indigenous groups have used the MAS (the political instrument) to gain power by "playing the democratic game." The MAS, on its part, has been agile and apt to gather and channel those forces towards the support of its political aims through its discourse and political as well as organizational work. In contrast, the opposition has concentrated itself on conducting politics as usual in the same manner the today discredited political parties did before Morales came to power. That is, they have built coalitions or alliances with the most diverse groupings, which most likely have the most diverse political interests, needs and preferences. These lose alliances have begun to show their inherent weaknesses through the rupture of such agreements even before the elections. Some of these groups have even allied with the MAS.

Lastly, the opposition does not seem to be able to rid itself from an association with the "traditional parties"of the pre-Morales era. The so called traditional parties, the MNR, ADN, MIR, NFR, etc., are still identified with what Morales calls the neoliberal era in Bolivia. Because the discourse today is strongly anti-neoliberal, any political organization associated with this era has a significant political deficit. Of course, most opposition leaders today have a political past as former members of the mentioned parties or even leading actors in those organizations. This linkage still weighs heavy on their backs. It is curious however, that this association does not seem to have a significant enough weight on the, let's say, recycled politicians within the MAS.

Looking at the same problem from the opposite side, it is also arguable that the opposition has difficulties due to the government's actions. First, the government has strong support because of all the benefits it distributes (jobs and financial resources). The government has been keen on highlighting the fact that poverty in Bolivia has been reduced because of the different bonuses (social transfers) it has created. Currently, the government has been discussing the increase in wages and the payment of extra bonuses for Christmas season. The implicit calculation is, if people can expect benefits from their support for the MAS, they will tend to vote for it and disregard the opposition's promises. Second, the government gives indigenous citizens, which makes up the largest group, a sense of unity around a discourse which includes inclusion, equality, indigeneity, decolonization, vivir bien, etc. Also, this sense of unity leads to a strong identification with the MAS as the instrument to gain power. Most of the groups in which the indigenous population is organized have recently expressed their plans to control their members so they vote for the government. They argue that a vote against Morales will be seen as an act of treason against the indigenous movements.

Third, and most important, it seems the government has the potential to heavily influence the outcome of the elections. These allegations (not only from the opposition but also from other organizations such as the national association of journalists) are largely based on the events in and around the electoral process. One way in which the government could allegedly be influencing the electoral outcome is through the control of the electoral tribunal. The opposition has been repeatedly accusing the tribunal of being partial with the government. For example, the UD has repeatedly complained the tribunal has not reacted to the many complains submitted highlighting how the government violated current electoral rules. For example, campaigning rules. Similarly, another example is how the tribunal has used those rules to impair the opposition's campaigns. Recently the tribunal passed a resolution prohibiting the use of candidate images and voice in any media before a certain date (September 12). This has been a major obstacle for the opposition because they have not been able to, one, criticize Morales, and two, to distribute their messages with their candidate's faces. Apparently, however, the tribunal does not see anything wrong when the president or vicepresident show their faces and hold speeches on TV cameras or radio microphones inaugurating a clinic or school or some other project around the country.

Moreover, the opposition has repeatedly highlighted the government's intentions to influence the electoral outcome by making use of government resources in its political campaign. Morales has been traveling around the country in government-owned helicopters, cars and airplanes, clearly giving him an unfair disadvantage against its opponents. At the same time, it has been making use of the government's own media outlets in order to send its message. Finally, the government is also, some times pressuring and other times directing, that civil servants significantly contribute to the political campaign with either money (part of the wage) or time (by showing up in every concentration there is). 

In conclusion, it is evident the Bolivian opposition has handicapped itself by splitting and showing a broken front which has not convinced the Bolivian electorate. However, it is not only the doing of the opposition which makes it difficult for itself to present an alternative against Morales. The government has been effective in trying to control, one way or the other, the outcome in October.