LA PAZ, BOLIVIA, and COCHRANE, CHILE — Bolivian President Evo Morales easily won his second five-year term Sunday night, solidifying the revolution he promises to bring to the country’s long-oppressed indigenous majority.
While recent elections in countries such as Uruguay and Honduras have seen Latin America’s pendulum swing back to centrist candidates, Mr. Morales – Bolivia’s first indigenous president – is one of the region’s most strident leftists, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and a vocal foe of the US. Morales’ win chalks up another important victory for the region’s hard-left, Chávez-led bloc, which also includes Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba.
Morales, a former coca grower, has many detractors, particularly in the energy-rich lowlands who say his programs to assert greater state control over the economy could destroy national productivity. But his wide victory margin was no surprise: he has long appealed to Bolivians who felt shut out by the old political elites in a country where 60 percent of the population identifies as indigenous and the same percentage falls below the poverty line.
“He’s an important representative for sectors that see themselves in him. He’s lived like them,” says Bolivian author and journalist Fernando Molino, who says the president’s success lies in his ability to combine renewed Bolivian nationalism with popular-hero status. “He started from very low and now he is where he is.”
Hailing from the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales won more than 62 percent of the vote in elections Sunday, with nearly all of the ballots counted. Bolivians also voted in a new Congress.
‘What do we want? Socialism!’
Sunday night supporters flooded into Plaza Murillo in downtown La Paz chanting “What do we want? Socialism!” amid air horns and drums.
Morales avoided a runoff by capturing over 50 percent of the vote, as he did with his first win in 2005, when he won with 53.7 percent. The election comes after Bolivians ratified a new Constitution in January allowing his second-term bid. The document, which recognizes a “plurinational” state, was considered a boon to the nation’s indigenous.
His closest contenders were fierce foe and former governor Manfred Reyes Villa of Plan Progreso para Bolivia and Samuel Doria Medina with Unidad Nacional. Neither came even close to Morales. In the eastern province of Santa Cruz, which resisted Morales’ recent constitutional reforms and has led opposition calls for greater independence from the central government, Mr. Reyes Villa narrowly defeated Morales, according to preliminary results.
‘A real socialist’
Girardo Urquizo, a coca farmer, stands as an example of both Morales´s popularity and polarizing abilities. Mr. Urquizo recently moved to Pando, one of the country’s northern, tropical provinces, under Morales’s plan to redistribute millions of acres managed by the state to landless Bolivians.
“Evo has always spoken in defense of us, no matter how much the rich and the business people try to marginalize us. I know Evo, he’s a real socialist,” he says. “When he won the first time, we celebrated, and we still have those feelings.”
The policy, as many others that seek to redistribute wealth in the poor, landlocked nation, has generated controversy. Some claim that Morales is relocating his supporters to boost votes in areas that do not support him, while others hail the project as a concrete attempt to address inequality in Bolivia.
Down the Chávez path?
Morales has also tightened state control over natural gas and mining industries. Under his administration, relations with the US have at times soured. In 2008 he expelled both the US ambassador and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. His detractors say they fear he is taking Bolivia down the same path as Venezuela, where Chávez has also sought and won re-election and battled the country’s elite.
Most recently Chávez shut down several banks in a growing banking probe, including another one this past weekend. On Sunday a government minister stepped down amid the scandal and Chávez called bankers “dirty thieves.”
Some Bolivians fear this style will increasingly creep into Bolivia’s political and economic life. Sandra Zanier, an opposition congresswoman-elect from La Paz, says she fears that Morales will attempt to run for president again in 2014, using the new constitution to justify a third term. Ms. Zanier sees Morales’s alliance with Chávez as a sign of this desire. “It’s not a good thing that another president can come here and make decisions,” she says. “Morales is permitting it because he wants to become a dictator.”
Even those in the center have their misgivings about the president. Voter Graciela Zubieta defines herself as a centrist, but she voted for Mr. Medina in this race. “I’m not from the right or the left. I want to be a neutral point, and I think that is (Medina),” she says. “He represents progress.”
But for a majority of voters, it is Morales who will give Bolivians their best chance at moving forward, and he is a man they simply like and trust. “He’s a really charismatic candidate. … He’s a president who has represented the people since his first day in office,” says Tatiana Albarracín Murillo, a young lawyer and Morales supporter who lives in La Paz. “He’s the first indigenous president of Bolivia – that affects his image. That along with his honesty, and the way he resolves problems from day to day, make him a very likable person. At the same time other groups, for the same characteristics, hate him. Even today, there are people who can’t believe an Indian is president.”