Unlike Neighbors, Bolivia’s Morales Contains Corruption Fallout
By Michael Shifter, Ben Raderstorf, April 7, 2015, Briefing
|An Aymara woman casts her ballot during regional elections, Huarina, Bolivia, March 29, 2015|
The city of El Alto, Bolivia, should be a stronghold for President Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. Perched on the Andean Plateau above its sister-city La Paz, the sprawling, fast-growing El Alto is considerably poorer and more indigenous than the capital. Almost three-quarters of its almost 1 million inhabitants are, like Morales, ethnically Aymara, and in the past voters have supported the president and other MAS candidates by large margins. On March 29, however, things took a turn in regional elections as the party lost dramatically in both the El Alto mayoral and the La Paz department gubernatorial races. The defeats headlined a broader wave of opposition victories in regional elections across Bolivia.
While the losses may appear simply to be a blow to Morales—now entering his 10th year in office, the longest-serving president in Latin America—they are in fact more complicated. They reflect both a protest vote against recent corruption scandals within the MAS and a growing disconnect between voters’ support for Morales and their opinion of the rest of the party.
In El Alto, corruption brought Bolivians to the polls to vote against the MAS. A recently leaked video had captured the incumbent MAS candidate for mayor, Edgar Patana, accepting a packet of what appeared to be cash in 2008, while he was head of the central regional labor union. Voters took note and resoundingly chose opposition candidate Soledad Chapeton by an almost 2-to-1 margin, a dramatic reversal from Patana’s nine-point margin of victory over Chapeton in 2010.
A similar dynamic played out in La Paz’s gubernatorial race, in which broader allegations of embezzlement crippled the campaign of the pro-government candidate, Felipa Huanca, who was running to replace a retiring MAS governor. While not directly implicated in the charges, Huanca could not escape the growing evidence that leaders of the campesino movement—a key base of her political support—had routinely pocketed funds designated for community projects. She lost by over 20 points.
The impact of such scandals in recent months is hard to ignore, raising questions about whether the electorate could be tiring of hegemonic control by the MAS and the stagnancy of single-party rule. Despite a sweeping 2010 anti-corruption law, the legal system continues to face allegations of corruption by domestic and international observers. Last October, Bolivia’s Congress announced that 300 of the country’s 508 prosecutors were under various forms of investigations under the statutes of the public prosecutor’s office, leading to fears that the judiciary is ill-equipped to address graft, fraud and abuse. In 2014, 30 percent of Bolivians reported being victims of corruption, the highest rate in the region. As the MAS has transitioned from a movement of relative political outsiders to a deeply entrenched governing party, with control of the presidency, a two-thirds majority in Congress, and—until late last month—most regional and municipal governments, some of its lower-level leaders have apparently fallen to the basest temptations of money and power.
Among its neighbors, Bolivia’s corruption scandals are hardly an anomaly. In recent months, corruption across Latin American has hampered presidencies and gathered into a growing regional crisis of confidence. In Brazil, revelations of massive party kickbacks through the state oil company, Petrobras, have all but crippled the government of President Dilma Rousseff. The lasting controversy in Argentina surrounding the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman and long-standing allegations of corruption and mismanagement have made the final year of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s presidency more contentious than ever. Even in Chile, long regarded as one of the most transparent countries in the region, dual scandals have struck both President Michelle Bachelet and the primary opposition party, casting a dark cloud over politics. Corruption has also undermined governments in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, derailing ambitious economic programs and contributing to more public discontent.
As such, it would seem that the dual blow of corruption scandals and election losses forecast more bad news for Morales. In reality, though, while the losses by the MAS were significant, they are likely little more than a glancing blow to his government. At most they show that, while supportive, Bolivia’s electorate is unwilling to blindly follow the president’s instructions—as his threat to divert spending away from regions that vote for the opposition seems to have been roundly ignored. With the opposition fragmented and Morales’ personal integrity untouched, his lock on power is unlikely to be shaken any time soon. After all, he cruised to re-election for a third term last October, and there is little to suggest that his standing has fallen dramatically since, if at all. One recent—and admittedly questionable—account has his current approval rating at a staggering 76 percent, a figure that would make him the most popular leader in Latin America.
Such a high approval rating, if true, would not be altogether surprising. Morales’ term in office has been successful, both in terms of governance and economic and social progress. Most important, Bolivia’s gas-fueled economy continues to thrive, outperforming almost all of its neighbors, despite sliding commodities prices. Even after being revised downward in March, economic growth outlook still stands at 5 percent, a base rate sustained since Morales was first elected in 2006. In social terms, too, his government has been mainly successful, reducing poverty arguably more effectively than any other country in the region. In fact, some of the same social spending from which MAS and campesino leaders are accused of profiting has been directly responsible for lifting millions of Bolivians out of poverty. Corruption, at least in part, is a corrosive byproduct of the economic prosperity for which Bolivia should be proud.
But the gap between Morales and the rest of the MAS is increasingly clear, especially in his tone and tenor in explaining away the losses. Instead of rejecting the accusations like many party leaders, Morales openly acknowledged the role corruption played in the opposition victories. “If [the allegations are] true,” he said in a press conference last week, “the people have cast a vote to punish corruption and, if so, I congratulate the people of La Paz.”
This does not, of course, mean Morales is invulnerable, or that he shouldn’t worry. The winds of party politics, especially in Latin America, can shift with little to no warning. However, for Evo, unlike so many of his regional counterparts, corruption may not necessarily mean crisis.
Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
Ben Raderstorf is program assistant at the Dialogue.