While Bolivian President Evo Morales will not be allowed to seek another term in office after the “No” vote in Sunday’s national referendum squeaked out a narrow victory over the “Yes” campaign that would have paved the way for re-election, the results of the referendum do not necessarily foreshadow the end of the road for Morales’ left-wing party.
What’s certain is that Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, will now face the task of selecting a political successor to represent the party in the South American country’s 2019 elections. But as Andean Information Network Director Kathryn Ledebur told teleSUR on the day of the referendum, the political direction for Bolivia in 2019 is far from predictable.
“It’s impossible to predict what will happen in three and a half years in Bolivia,” Ledebur told teleSUR, adding that the candidates for the 2019 race will only be confirmed several months before the election. “Morales' potential candidacy is the only thing that has been decided, but it would be folly to try to predict what that would mean in terms of political dynamics in the next election.”
But aside from the concrete outcome of blocking Morales’ potential re-election, the No result could have secondary effects on Bolivia’s political scene in the next three years.
On one hand, the No vote could pressure Morales to push through as many items on his government’s agenda as possible with his majority support in Congress before the next election, as it remains uncertain whether MAS’s new leadership will be able to garner the same widespread support that swept Morales to a landslide victory in the last election.
The No campaign could also impact MAS positively by stimulating reflection within the party and pushing it to “engage more meaningfully” with a wide cross-section of Bolivian voters, Ledebur argued, thus expanding its popularity even more.
But on the flip side, Ledebur predicted that although a No may drive some Bolivians to re-evaluate MAS in a critical way, the pressure will particularly be on the opposition, which backed the No campaign, to put forward tangible proposals if they expect to make gains in the next election.
She added that although the referendum victory could give a boost to the right-wing by emboldening Bolivia’s opposition, over the past decade Morales’ opponents have failed to forge alliances among opposition groups and deliver clear policy proposals. Instead, the opposition has been focused on launching criticism against the left-wing government.
“Beyond frustration with Morales, they (the opposition) are going to have to give people something concrete to offer and they're going to have to make alliances that they haven't been able to do for a very long time,” Ledebur said.
Leading up to the referendum, polls showed a 40-40 split between the Yes and No camps with the remainder of voters undecided. The vote marked the second time Bolivian voters participated in a national referendum on the constitution under Evo Morales after the 2009 vote that approved the country’s current constitution.
Although MAS has the two-thirds majority support in Bolivian Congress to make a constitutional amendment and could have attempted to pushed through the change to allow Morales to run for re-election, the party opted to put the question to a national popular referendum.
Although the referendum put on the table a constitutional change that would have allowed all presidents and vice presidents to serve three consecutive terms in office, the process largely became seen as a referendum on Morales’ presidency without a deeper debate on the merits of limiting or extending presidential terms.
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“There has been no substantive debate about the issue at hand - how important are term limits for a healthy democracy?” Ledebur said, pointing out that the referendum campaign lacked a broad reflection on the benefits and downfalls of extending presidential terms with consideration of varying precedents. “It’s really become a popularity contest or a rejection of Morales.”
While Morales came to power for his current term with a resounding 61 percent of the vote, over 30 percent ahead of his closest contender, and has continued to enjoy high rates of support, Bolivian voters have decided his presidency will come to an end in 2019.
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In recent months, South America’s right-wing won electoral victories in Argentina and Venezuela, prompting Latin America’s leftist movement at large, including Evo Morales, to call for reflection on the socialist project. Bolivia’s No result could similarly present an opportunity for MAS to think seriously about the direction of the party and how to pass the torch to the next leader while deepening support for the legacy of Morales’ policies.
For the time being, the fact that Morales cannot seek re-election remains the only certainty. How Bolivia’s ruling left-wing and opposition groups rise to the electoral and other political challenges at hand and shape the country’s political future remains to be seen.
As Ledebur put it: “What happens from here on out is almost anyone's guess.”
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