SUCRE, Bolivia – The results of the constitutional referendum, which proposed allowing President Evo Morales to run once again for the presidency once his current mandate expires, were too close to call officially Tuesday night but shortly after midnight on Wednesday, the ‘no’ vote finally emerged victorious.
As of just before midnight on Wednesday in La Paz, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of the Plurinational Electoral Organ (OEP) said that with 99.72 percent of votes tallied, the ‘no’ vote emerged victorious with 51.30 percent (2,675,813) as opposed to the 48.70 percent (2,540,235) gathered for the ‘yes’ vote.
The TSE detailed that 99.72 percent of the voting sites were scrutinized, meaning that even if the rest of the sites would provide ‘yes’ votes, it would not be enough to overturn the vote advantage held by the ‘no’ votes, effectively ending the referendum that saw a high turnout of 84.45 percent.
The ‘no’ vote won in six of Bolivia’s Departments (States) while three ‘yes’ won in three, but the vote was close given that the pro-Morales vote was more common in the heavily populated Departments of La Paz and Cochabamba. The eastern Santa Cruz Department, the wealthiest region of the country (and just behind La Paz as the most populated), was the most vital in the ‘no’ win.
The urns opened on Sunday, but the count, divided between electronic, paper and long-distance votes (as well as votes from Bolivians living abroad), took several days to come together, and the situation was further complicated by heavy rains in parts of the country.
Meanwhile, tensions had spilled over between the Morales supporters and opposition supporters, with sympathizers of the latter even going as far holding “vigils” outside of several voting centers around the country in order to “prevent electoral fraud,” despite no reports of such activity taking place by local or foreign observers.
Morales stayed quiet but his second-in-command, Vice President Álvaro García Linera, accused the opposition of “electoral bullying,” especially in rural and indigenous regions where Morales enjoys a high level of supported. Indeed, if the turnout were higher in the rural areas, the ‘yes’ vote would have emerged victorious.
Morales, of the center-left to left-wing Movement for Socialism (MAS), was re-elected for another term in October of 2014 after he easily defeated challenger Samuel Jorge Doria of the center-right to right-wing Democratic Unity Coalition by a count of 61.4 percent to 24.2 percent. In parliamentary elections, meanwhile, the MAS held onto their congressional majority.
The nation’s first indigenous leader enjoyed a tremendously high approval rate as he began his current five-year term on January 22, 2015.
As he has been in power since January 2006, Morales was already the longest-serving democratically-elected leader in the history of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. However, after the 2014 win, Morales ensured that he would surpass military strongman and authoritarian Andrés de Santa Cruz (1829-1839) as the longest-serving leader of Bolivia, period, and he did so in September of 2015.
Trying to ride that wave of popularity, Morales and his MAS party presented a constitutional amendment bill to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, which approved putting it to a referendum.
The aim of this bill was to amend Article 168 of the Constitution of the State by allowing two consecutive re-elections of the president and the vice president, meaning that Morales and García Linera would have been candidates once again in the 2019 election. With the referendum failing, however, Morales is set leave office on January 22, 2020 and MAS now has to find an alternate candidate, which will be incredibly difficult given Morales’ popularity and connection with the Bolivian people.
Juan Evo Morales Ayma, 54, born to a poor, indigenous (Aymara) family of llama breeders in the small town of Isallavi in the Oruro Department, rose to prominence through his leadership position in a coca growers labor union. His prominence grew and after leading several large-scale anti-government marches, he eventually entered politics as a MAS Deputy for Cochabamba in 1997.
Morales ran for President in 2002 and finished second to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada of the center-right Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) party by only 1.6 percentage points. Since neither met the 50 percent threshold, the MNR man was chosen as President by the National Congress, as was the law at the time.
Just over year later, however, Sánchez de Lozada’s economic policies and plans for natural gas and hydrocarbon exportation led to strong public opposition and protest marches were led by Morales into La Paz. After three days of demonstrations, Sánchez de Lozada sent in military troops to destroy the protest and after clashes erupted between demonstrators and troops, 59 civilians were killed and Sánchez de Lozada’s rule was on the brink.
After Morales called for another march and the human mass was turned back violently, Sánchez de Lozada fled to the United States. Several efforts by the Bolivian government to extradite him back to his native country have been unsuccessful.
After years of political instability and interim leaders, new elections were called in 2005 and Morales would emerge victorious this time, defeating the Christian Democrat Jorge Quiroga by a margin of 54 percent to 29 percent. By Morales’ side was his running mate, Álvaro García Linera, who remains in that position. In 2009, Morales easily retained the presidency by winning 64 percent of the vote, almost 40 percentage points more than the second-placed candidate, Manfred Reyes Villa of the conservative Plan Progress for Bolivia party.
In April of 2013, the Bolivian Supreme Court ruled that Morales could run for a third consecutive term, even though the Bolivian Constitution limits this number to two. The reason given was that because the Constitution was amended in 2009, that meant that Morales’ first term which began in 2006 did not count toward the now-amended term limits as he was elected under the old Constitution.
It is not surprising that Morales’ popularity remains very high, even if the referendum failed. He has significantly improved the lives of Bolivia’s lower and working classes, as well as of the poor and the indigenous through his center-left policies of anti-imperialistic nationalization and social democracy while expanding the economy.
Given the economic growth and improved conditions, Morales announced a 20% raise in the nationwide minimum wage rate in mid-2014, certainly boosting his image among ordinary Bolivians after lengthy discussions with labor unions brought about the change. The fact that his first action as President was to lower his own wage by 60 percent also did not hurt his reputation.