Evo Morales, the former president of Bolivia, is still in exile in Argentina. But the outcome of this week’s presidential election may mean that it will soon be safe for Morales to return home, if not necessarily to power. Exit polls suggest that Luis Arce, the candidate for Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo, defeated centrist Carlos Mesa, his closest competitor, by around 20 points; right-wing candidate Luis Fernando Camacho polled a distant third. Bolivia’s interim president, the right-wing Jeanine Áñez, pulled out of the race last month, ostensibly to avoid splitting the conservative vote. According to Reuters, opinion polls showed her running in fourth place, far behind Arce and Mesa.
The election isn’t just a repudiation of Áñez or the Bolivian right. It’s an embarrassment for the U.S. government, which backed Áñez in 2019 as Morales sought a fourth presidential term. Morales’s reelection campaign had spurred accusations that he had become an authoritarian figure; he had previously lost a public referendum that would have allowed him to run again, but did so anyway after a court ruled in his favor. Then, the Organization of American States claimed it had observed irregularities in the October 2019 contest, during which Morales suddenly took a lead after trailing. OAS quickly released a statement casting doubt on the results. Weeks later, Áñez took power with the support of the Bolivian military — and the approval of the Trump administration. Morales fled the country. The OAS eventually produced a report backing up its claims of electoral fraud.
But the justification for what amounted to a coup, while never sturdy, collapsed completely this June. An independent study called the OAS’s evidence into serious question. Once researchers had corrected for certain flaws in the OAS’s methodology, “the O.A.S.’s results go away, leaving no statistical evidence of fraud,” the New York Times reported. (The OAS still stands by its original findings.)
Though Áñez had withdrawn from the race, the election was still a public referendum on her interim presidency, her policies, and the power grab that swept her into office last year. The result ought to put to rest the notion that Bolivian democracy was in dire need of protection from Morales and his party. “[The election] tells us that the right wing in Bolivia has no broad political support — not even close,” Jim Shultz, the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, told the Guardian.
Morales’s tenure in power was hardly corruption-free, and his decision to seek a fourth term provided the country’s right wing with the leverage it needed to oust him from power. But in other respects, his government stood as an example of successful left-wing governance. Morales dramatically reduced poverty and oversaw the development of a viable Bolivian middle class, even by the standards of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The country’s GDP “grew an average of 4.8% a year from 2004 to 2017, while the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty was more than halved from approximately 36% down to 17% during that time,” NPR reported just after Morales entered exile.
But the same policies that helped lift Bolivia out of extreme poverty alienated the conservative upper class that made up much of Áñez’s base. Morales, who was the country’s first indigenous president, redistributed 77,000 acres of land from private owners to the mostly indigenous families who’d worked it in destitute conditions. Evangelicals and Catholics also viewed the Morales administration as a threat to their religious values. When Áñez took power last November, she walked through the presidential palace brandishing a large Bible. “The Bible has returned to the palace!” she announced. Not for long, it seems.