Following a year that ended in political turmoil, Bolivians will head to the polls once again. Originally scheduled for May 3, the presidential election has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal suspended the execution of its electoral calendar for 14 days given the quarantine, and will work alongside political parties to determine a new date for the general elections—which must then be approved by the country’s congress. This year’s poll is undoubtedly an odd one. Not only will it take place as Bolivia and the world struggle to contain the outbreak, but it will also be the first time in almost eighteen years in which Evo Morales, the country’s leftist strongman, is not on the ballot. Evo, who remains in exile in Argentina, won’t even be able to run for a seat in the Senate. In the absence of the caudillo that ruled Bolivia for over a decade, it’s worth examining who might win this year’s presidential contest.
Meet the candidates
Although there are eight candidates officially registered in the first-round vote, the presidential contest has turned into a three-way race between Luis Arce, Jeanine Áñez, and Carlos Mesa. The remaining presidential hopefuls will hold considerable influence if, as predicted by the polls, there is a second-round vote.
Handpicked by Evo Morales, Luis Arce, an economist by training, is running under the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. As Morales’ Minister of Economy and Finance from 2006 to 2019—with a brief interlude from 2017 to 2018 due to illness—Arce is one of the chief architects behind the Bolivian Miracle, the over a decade in which Bolivia experienced unprecedented growth and poverty reduction. Much to Arce’s credit, the figures speak for themselves. From 2006 to 2017, Bolivia averaged 4.8 percent growth and saw poverty drop from 59.9 percent to 36.4 percent.
Despite his credentials and long-time support of Morales, Arce’s nomination was met with resistance within the MAS, in what turned out to be a test of Morales’ leadership in exile. Factions within the party rejected Arce due to his more moderate technocratic profile and lack of connections to indigenous groups. However, the nomination of another veteran cabinet member, former Minister of Foreign Affairs David Choquehuanca for the vice-presidential ticket, cooled tensions. Choquehuanca, who is of Aymara descent, is considered a hardliner—until recently, he was the Secretary-General of the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). The Arce-Choquehuanca ticket partly resembles the Morales-García Linera that ruled the country from 2006 to 2019.
Jeanine Áñez, the interim president, is another leading contender. A conservative senator, representing the northern Department of Beni since 2010, Áñez’s presidential candidacy—much like her breakthrough in national politics—was a surprise. In the wake of Evo’s forced resignation, Áñez, who at the time held the ceremonial post of second vice-president of the Senate, became interim president following a series of resignations, including that of Adriana Salvatierra, the MAS president of the Senate.
Áñez made international headlines when she stated that “the Bible return[ed] to the Palace” after she was sworn in as interim president. And again, when she reversed Bolivian foreign policy by recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
The former senator’s most controversial move came when she backtracked on her presidential ambitions. Áñez had emphasized her role as interim president was to guarantee “transparent elections.” As recent as December 2019, the government explicitly stated that she would not run for the executive office, nor would she support any candidate.
Thus, it shocked many when the bible-carrying interim president announced her presidential bid in January—a decision that raised criticism across the political spectrum. Samuel Doria Medina, a centrist businessman who ran for the presidency in 2005, 2009, and 2014 (in the last election, receiving 24.2 percent of votes), joined Áñez as her vice-presidential ticket.
Carlos Mesa is the third main candidate. A seasoned politician, Mesa is familiar with the burdens of the presidency after serving as vice-president to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s second short-lived government (2002-2003). Following Lozada’s resignation, Mesa ruled the country until 2005, when he too was forced to quit due to massive protests spearheaded by Evo Morales.
In the wake of his fall from power, Mesa made a political comeback when he was tapped by Morales to become the representative of Bolivia’s territorial claims against Chile in The Hague. Although the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled against Bolivia in an upsetting 12-3 vote, the post provided Mesa with a platform to pursue his presidential ambitions. In 2019, Mesa ran under the centrist Civic Community (CC) coalition and received 36.5 percent of votes. Gustavo Pedraza, a former cabinet member of Mesa (2004-2005) and running mate in 2019, will again seek the vice-presidency alongside Mesa.
Luis Fernando Camacho, Chi Hyun Chung, Jorge Quiroga, Fernando Gainza, and Feliciano Mamani are the remaining five presidential hopefuls. Of them, only Camacho—a conservative politician from Santa Cruz who became famous by actively campaigning in favor of Evo’s resignation—sporadically reached double-digits in the polls. However, Camacho lost public support and recently suspended his campaign.
What do the polls say?
Two main trends emerge from the handful of polls conducted so far. First, there is a relative consensus that the MAS ticket composed by Arce-Choquehuanca will receive a plurality of votes in the first-round vote. The actual race is for second place. Most polls show a statistical tie between Áñez and Mesa. With a little over a month before the election, the following weeks will prove crucial for voters. Áñez is betting on her government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—which so far has provided a money transfer of $75 per child enrolled in public schools for families—to gain support.
Second, the runoff election is still an open race. While the MAS is practically guaranteed a spot on the ballot, it remains unclear if the party will win the contest. Since a presidential run-off facilitates the creation of a united front against Morales’ MAS, a run-off vote decreases the party’s victory—this was, after all, what drove Evo to the costly decision of declaring an early triumph in October..
The COVID-19 outbreak has added yet another layer of uncertainty to this year’s presidential contest. The government’s handling of the crisis will be crucial to Áñez’s presidential bid. It remains to be seen, however, if anti-MAS parties will be able to leave their differences behind and join forces in the presidential run-off.
*Correction: The election dates are tentative based on the 14 days quarantine announced by the government. Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), with Congressional approval, still has to approve any changes made to the electoral calendar. The article has been updated to incorporate this correction.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello