In Bolivia, politics is not presented in a classic way as a confrontation between the ruling party and the opposition, but as a dispute between factions within the government itself. It could not be otherwise in a country where the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) concentrates more than 50% of the vote since the 2005 presidential elections, in addition, MAS harbors a diversity of social organizations with a great capacity for mobilization and collective action.
Unlike countries such as Chile, Ecuador, or Peru; in Bolivia, the Legislative Assembly lacks real political power: it is not the space through which decisions are made, nor can it pressure the executive power, forcing it to backtrack or shape its policies. In Chile, the elected leftist president Gabriel Boric will be obliged in the National Congress to establish agreements, not only with the coalition that backed his candidacy but also with his conservative opponents.
In Ecuador, President Guillermo Lasso, far from having a majority in the National Assembly, is facing a sector related to former President Rafael Correa that is blocking his economic reform initiatives. And in Peru, President Pedro Castillo not only cannot put together stable coalitions within his own government, but the Congress of the Republic can remove him from office at any time. In Bolivia, such extremes are simply inconceivable.
Luis Arce and his cabinet
In mid-January 2022, President Luis Arce was besieged by demands for changes in his cabinet. The Pacto de Unidad (the Unity Pact), an umbrella organization of the organizations related to MAS, had sentenced the departure of seven ministers, among them the government minister Eduardo del Castillo, whom the powerful Unitary Union Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers—CSUTCB branded as a traitor.
Although the government spokespeople described the event as part of internal democracy, the truth is that within MAS, an attempt was being made to reconfigure the balance of power between at least two MAS factions. Evo Morales was the most interested in a change and launched the order for a cabinet renewal. Morales claimed that President Arce had no ministers to defend him and that all of them were looking after their positions without taking into account that they could be “burned” to save the presidential figure.
Arce, unlike his previous logic of going backward to govern, in this case, chose immobilism and managed to convince social organizations that the decision on an eventual cabinet change that was to take place on January 22 was postponed to February 11. Everything seemed to suggest that Arce was only delaying the problem.
However, on January 23, government minister Eduardo del Castillo announced the capture of Maximiliano Dávila at the border with Argentina. The former general director of the Bolivian Special Force against Drug Trafficking (FELCN) was accused of money laundering, illicit profits, and links to drug trafficking based on an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Although Dávila had taken office near the end of Morales’ term, all media attention was focused on the former president and his administration. The media published a photograph of Morales together with the accused, and when he was being taken to the San Pedro prison, he described Minister del Castillo as violating the process in order to “incriminate President (Evo) Morales”.
In view of these events, several MAS leaders tried to stop the political deterioration. Clemente Ramos, Assemblyman for the department of Santa Cruz, accused the right-wing of “coup plotters and drug traffickers” of setting up the case. The Federation of peasant workers of Cochabamba, together with six Federations of coca growers of the Tropic, pronounced themselves in defense of Morales and declared themselves on alert in the face of what they described as an attempt to destabilize the government. Finally, MAS as a bloc rejected any possibility that former police colonel Dávila from being extradited to the United States. All these efforts were in vain.
Although the partisan opposition tried to capitalize on the scandal, the real political effect was the weakening of Morales’ figure, the coca growers’ unions, and the strengthening of government minister Eduardo del Castillo and, therefore, of the whole Arce cabinet.
On February 11, the CSUTCB representative, after meeting with the president, declared to the media that a change of ministers would no longer be requested and that a periodical evaluation would be made “to improve the quality and governability of our brother president and vice-president”.
Arce managed to keep his cabinet and, in this way, score a clear victory over the pro-Morales current, while the former president has denounced the existence of a “right-wing” in the MAS that seeks to discredit him.
Democracy in factional politics
The closeness between drug traffickers and police, and the promiscuity between judicial officials and murderous criminals would probably have provoked a political avalanche capable of putting any government in serious crisis. However, this has not been the case. The scandals have only served to rebalance power between MAS factions, but have not generated political change that would, for example, commit the government to real change in the administration of justice and police.
This is the pernicious effect of the prevailing party system in Bolivia where the disproportionate political power of the ruling party means that the opposition party actors lack a minimum capacity to block any MAS initiative. In this way, the political game is played within the boundaries of MAS and among the social organizations that in one way or another are part of the government administration, without transcending to an institutional space where a good part of the civil society perceives that their interests are discussed and represented.
With the arrival of Arce to power, politics has become more dynamic, but this change has not represented a broadening of democracy in the inclusive sense. If before politics had Morales as its axis, today it is concentrated in the MAS and its factions that dispute governmental power.
If politics is reduced to the limits imposed by MAS, democracy is seriously damaged and discontent is generated in the population that no longer feels represented or feels used by those in power. Democracy must be able to include actors and currents that are not linked or coincide with the majority party. If this does not happen, the risks of a crisis of political representation are high.
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva