Bolivia’s Subnational Elections: Three Things to Watch

  • Merritt Samuel

After failed general elections in October 2019, Bolivia is at last reaching the end of a long-winded electoral process. Rescheduled to October 2020, Bolivia’s general elections are now behind the country, and voters will take to the polls to choose between thousands of gubernatorial, mayoral and council member candidates this Sunday.

After the 2020 elections – which saw an overwhelming first-round victory for Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate President Luis Arce – tensions between national and local government are at an all-time high. Exacerbating the political divides, Arce has so far failed to settle conflicts within Bolivia’s government and citizenry, as well as contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Many even accuse his administration of politicizing the country’s nascent vaccine campaign. With only 520,000 vaccinations available so far and little information on future distribution, many Bolivians are losing faith in the national government’s ability and willingness to coordinate relief efforts with newly-elected opposition officials.

The last in Bolivia’s political transition, this Sunday’s subnational elections have the power to either drive the country into continued crisis or mitigate its resurgent political conflicts. As voters head to the polls, here are three things you’ll need to watch:

Rapid Shifts in the Multi-Party Landscape

With unresolved economic, health and social issues, the rescheduled 2019 general elections and then postponed 2020 subnational elections created a prolonged political stalemate and has fueled citizen frustration. The postponement of subnational elections from early 2020 to March 2021 exposed internal divisions in key political parties, with members fiercely debating candidate selections and demonstrating weaknesses in party structures. This is best exemplified by former MAS senator Eva Copa, who was excluded from the party’s subnational elections ballot because of tensions with party leadership. She now leads with 76 percent in El Alto’s mayoral race under a new alliance, Jallalla. The fluidity of party dynamics is also evident in Santa Cruz, where opposition to the country’s longest-ruling party – the MAS – is no longer led by the Democrat Social Movement. In just a few months, the We Believe party, led by political newcomer Luis Fernando Camacho, has become the primary MAS challenger in the city of Santa Cruz. Ultimately, fragmentation across political parties perpetuates the tradition of parties built around individual candidates, while weakening their ability to effectively advocate for citizens’ issues in the post-election cycle.

Politicization of COVID-19 Relief at the National Level

As political division grows and COVID-19 continues to devastate Bolivia, a coordinated response between local and national government to provide economic and health resources is critical. President Arce has remained quiet regarding mitigating measures and has instead campaigned that a MAS vote is a vote for vaccines, which some analysts interpret as political blackmail. For instance, media reports have cited President Arce’s warning in January that, “it will be difficult to help municipalities and departments with authorities with which the national government cannot coordinate,” which implies potential political bias in resource distribution. Fueling fears that MAS aligned localities will be first in line for vaccines, some partisan threats have been even more overt. The Vice Minister of Education, for instance, demanded lists of all civil servants who do not plan to campaign for the MAS – indicating potential threats of retribution when it comes to the distribution of vaccines. As a result, Bolivian civil society and international actors must closely monitor any additional instances of voter intimidation related to vaccine allocation prior to the elections.

Increased Demands for Citizen-Centered Governance

As weakened political parties struggle to implement citizen-centered change, and as the national government remains silent on key reform issues, citizen demands are escalating. Since January, the Confederation of Drivers has held multiple protests and strikes, demanding that President Arce extend their workers’ bank loans to combat the transportation sector’s financial losses during the pandemic. Healthcare workers are striking in protest of working conditions; parents of school children are demanding adequate distance learning; and coca farmers are rising up in La Paz, while soy farmers are blockading in Santa Cruz. Given the wave of demonstrations leading up to the subnational elections, newly elected officials must be prepared to effectively respond to all citizens’ needs during this time of overlapping crises.

While international actors and political analysts closely track the mayoral and governor races, thousands of first-time officials will enter the political sphere with fresh perspectives to improve local governance. Therefore, local officials must be equipped with the resources to actively represent citizens and participate in Bolivia’s legislative mechanisms, regardless of the political outcome of the election.  

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