Bolivia’s Presidential Elections

Bolivia’s Presidential Elections

December 16, 2005 2:24 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Bolivian voters head to the polls December 18 to vote for a new president to lead one of Latin America’s poorest, most divided countries. The frontrunner by a small margin is populist leader Evo Morales, leader of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), whose populist, socialist, anti-American campaign rhetoric has the Bush administration up in arms. By the end of campaigning December 14, analysts predicted Morales, an indigenous Aymara Indian, will not win the necessary 50 percent of the popular vote in Sunday’s elections and will likely be forced to enter into pact-making with former conservative President Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, leader of the center-right Poder Democratico y Social (Podemos) Party. Despite the international attention paid to Bolivia’s elections, experts say the elections will not resolve the longstanding issues dividing the country’s disparate populations along ethnic, economic, and political lines.

Who is running?

Eight candidates are running for Bolivia’s presidency, but only three are set to play decisive roles in Sunday’s election. A December 14 poll by the daily newspaper La Prensa showed 34 percent of voters supported Morales and 29 percent supported Quiroga. Cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina of the Fronte de Unidad Nacional (UN) party trailed with 9 percent.

  • Evo Morales. Election frontrunner Morales draws most of his support from Bolivia’s politically mobilized indigenous populations in the country’s highlands, including La Paz, Oruco, and the large coca-producing region of Cochabamba. Morales is expected to win around 40 percent of Sunday’s vote. According to Newsweek, "no one represents the new activism [of indigenous communities] better than Morales." He has vowed to end twenty years of neo-liberal economic policies that have failed to lift Bolivia out of poverty and to allow the cultivation of coca; limited coca cultivation is already legal in parts of Bolivia. Rising to prominence in the 1990s as a leader of a labor union movement to defend the rights of coca growers against U.S.-backed coca-eradication programs, Morales narrowly missed a victory in the 2002 presidential elections by 42,000 votes. His following has remained strong, and MAS will rely on peasant support in rural areas where coca growing is a way of life to help win Sunday’s vote.
  • Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga. Filling in as president from 2000-02 after his predecessor Hugo Banzer, fell ill and stepped down, Quiroga is running on a more conservative platform promising to keep Bolivia’s markets open and draws much of his following from the resource-rich areas in the lowlands. Analysts watching Bolivia’s political developments say Quiroga received generally good marks for his time in office. "In nearly every aspect, his program differs fundamentally from that of Evo Morales," says Peter DeShazo, Americas Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and until a year ago was deputy assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs. He is expected to carry the big-city vote of Santa Cruz. As for his opponent, Quiroga told a rally, "We’re in a contest with an adversary that has slogans but no proposals." His campaign ties MAS to narcotrafficking, terrorism, Venezuela’s firebrand President Hugo Chavez, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
  • Samuel Doria Medina. Self-described candidate of the "popular center," Medina is a cement magnate heading the Fronte de Unidad Nacional (UN). Although he has little chance of winning Sunday’s vote, he could influence the formation of a coalition government in a January runoff.

What are the main domestic issues?

It is unlikely that the elections will rectify the country’s longstanding social and economic problems. Bolivia’s new president will face serious challenges: a deeply impoverished yet politically invested and empowered indigenous population; pressure to exploit the continent’s second-largest natural gas reserves to alleviate Bolivian poverty; and calls for greater regional autonomy from the wealthier and ethnically distinct lowland areas including the city of Santa Cruz.

  • Indigenous population. Bolivia has the largest proportion of indigenous people in all of Latin America. There are thirty-six distinct Native American groups making up 60 percent to 70 percent of the population. Racism in the country is still a major problem: Alvaro Garcia Linera, Morales’ vice-presidential candidate, told supporters, "Bolivia almost has an apartheid system—not legal, but in practice it is about the same." The indigenous population, which only won the right to vote in 1952, is now demanding greater representation in political institutions long-dominated by the white or mestizo (mixed) elite.

    Most experts say Bolivia’s indigenous population is largely left out of the economic growth Bolivia experienced after enacting the economic reform plan called the "New Economic Policy" in 1985. According to DeShazo, in his brief "Bolivia’s Deepening Crisis," Bolivia was Latin America’s "poster child of political and economic progress" and its economic reforms pushed the country to the "front lines of economic liberalization" on the continent. But the reforms did not create the jobs poor Bolivians needed. The free-market policies since the 1980s have failed to trickle down to the average Bolivian, says Coletta Youngers, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "Ultimately, what this election comes down to is the ’haves’ versus the ’have-nots.’"
  • Natural gas. Bolivia’s energy resources are second only to Venezuela’s in Latin America, with 54 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. In 1996, then-President Sanchez de Lozada passed the Hydrocarbons Law that made it easier for foreign companies to invest in Bolivia, exponentially increasing Bolivia’s energy production. By 2004, the law had become very unpopular and in a national referendum that year, Bolivians overwhelmingly voted to repeal the 1996 law and to allow the government more control over foreign gas companies’ investments in the country. Massive street protests over the natural gas industry led to the political demise of both Lozada and his successor, Carlos Mesa. Interim President Eduardo Rodriguez succeeded Mesa in June 2005 after Mesa was forced to resign because of protests to nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas industry. Under the new 2005 Hydrocarbons Law, companies are charged 50 percent in taxes and royalties and some companies have threatened to take their cases to international arbitration over the higher fees.

    DeShazo says the future of Bolivia’s energy industry will have a strong effect on the country’s economic development. Revenue from the energy industry could help develop Bolivia’s infrastructure and address key social and economic concerns, he says. Both Morales and Quiroga are promising to exploit Bolivia’s vast oil reserves to pull the country out of poverty. Quiroga plans to do this by raising export prices. According to MAS’ hydrocarbons strategist, Carlos Villegas, MAS would require all companies operating in Bolivia to hand over their extracted hydrocarbons to the state oil company, the Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), which would then be responsible for selling the hydrocarbons and would pay the companies a "fair profit" for their services. These companies would still be charged 50 percent for taxes and royalties.
  • Regional autonomy. In 1994, Bolivia instituted a decentralization program under the Popular Participation Law, which transferred funds and responsibilities to 327 municipal governments and recognized Bolivia’s many different ethnic groups and indigenous languages. The model has been relatively successful, experts say. But recently, there have been increasingly strong demands for regional autonomy, especially from Bolivia’s wealthier eastern lowland areas, over fears that the government’s central mindset will disenfranchise them of their resources and wealth. Eduardo Gamarra, director of Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center, says "Bolivia has always had a battle between the lowlands and the highlands. Resources on either side have always exacerbated tensions" between them.

What happens if neither candidate wins a majority?

If neither candidate wins in the vote, which will be supervised by the United Nations and Organization of American States, the decision falls to the national Congress, where Quiroga’s party Podemos is expected to take the majority of the seats. If Quiroga wins the most votes, but not enough to be automatically named president, MAS will likely pressure Congress to elect Morales, not Quiroga. "All realistic outcomes of the vote are fraught with difficulty," says DeShazo. Politics in Bolivia has never been easy: The country has had eighty-three presidents and about 200 coups and countercoups since it gained independence from Spain in 1825.

Why is Washington wary of a Morales victory?

Experts say he may be challenging one of the most sensitive areas of U.S. policy in Latin America by campaigning on the coca card. Bolivia is one of the world’s largest coca producers with an estimated 79,000 acres of coca under production. Many poor Bolivians rely on coca cultivation as their sole source of income. The country’s coca-eradication efforts have been largely suspended since last year and cocaine production soared 107 tons in 2004, up 35 percent. Though Morales has promised to fight cocaine trafficking and to only allow coca cultivation on 12,000 hectares of land, many experts expect cocaine production will rise under a Morales presidency. Past crop-eradication programs have meant political suicide for Bolivia’s politicians, though the exercises usually mean more U.S. aid. In 1998, Bolivia enacted a drug-eradication program called the Dignity Plan in the coca-producing region of Chapare. According to Gamarra’s report (PDF) for the Inter-American Dialogue on drug policy and democracy in the Andean region, "economic recession and political turmoil...contributed to a pattern of instability that almost ended Bolivarian democracy."

The U.S. is also concerned over Venezuela’s suspected backing of Morales in the election, though Morales calls U.S. allegations he is being bankrolled by Chavez "ridiculous." Experts who predict Morales will be more pragmatic once in office expect he will not fall in the Chavez-Castro camp. "There is a dangerous tendency to view Morales as more radical than he is and to treat him as a pariah instead of trying to bring him into the fold," says Youngers. Her WOLA colleague Jeff Vogt, in an interview from La Paz, agrees. He says U.S. analysts and government officials have for a long time misread Morales by pegging him as a radical. "In order to keep up with his base, he had to make more radical promises to not be completely left behind."

What challenges will Morales face if he wins?

The one common thread among all Morales observers is no one really knows what a Morales victory will mean for Bolivia, or U.S.-Bolivian relations and experts say Morales will have a difficult time governing if elected. Congress will be divided with strong opposition on the left and right. In a country as polarized as Bolivia, Morales will have a difficult time building coalitions. Morales will have to play powerbroker between a very strong Podemos in Congress and radical leftist movements that may revolt against him if he moderates his position.

If Morales caters to his left and follows through with a more radical campaign to nationalize Bolivia’s natural energy industry, he risks losing much-needed foreign investment in the country and alienating aid from the international donor community, experts say. Youngers expects Morales to recognize a more moderate path is necessary to survive after the elections. Should Morales become more moderate in office, he risks strong opposition from the more radical leftist elements that helped bring him to power. "In any case, his campaign has awakened expectations for economic and social benefits that will be hard to satisfy," says DeShazo.

How does Bolivia’s vote fit into this year’s elections across Latin America?

This year has been dubbed the year of elections for Latin America, with a dozen presidential elections and thirteen legislative elections across the continent. Many Latin American observers predict the elections will result in a tilt to the left in region for years to come. Since 1999, when Hugo Chavez was voted into office in Venezuela, left-leaning leaders have emerged in three-quarters of the hemisphere countries, and now head Latin America’s three largest economies: Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela. But the Economist predicts the "bigger picture is broadly one of continuity—for better or for worse." Each of these elections presents a different political picture, says DeShazo, and it would be hard to use Bolivia as an example for elections to come. "Some of the issues in play in Bolivia—concern about jobs, poverty, social exclusion of indigenous populations, public security, and dissatisfaction with traditional politics, will certainly manifest themselves in other elections," he says. "Whether voters go left, right, or center, will depend on perceptions of the candidates and what they offer."

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Elections and Voting



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