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Bolivia has been in political flux for the past year, but on October 18 the country saw a surprisingly successful election. The Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) candidate, Luis Arce, claimed an early victory with 52.4 percent of the vote. Carlos Mesa, the other leading candidate, quickly conceded stating, “It is up to us, as befits those of us who believe in democracy […] to recognize that there has been a winner in this election.”
President-elect Arce’s political history is neatly intertwined with former president Evo Morales. Arce was Finance Minister for the majority of the Morales administration, and it was Morales who endorsed Arce to head the MAS party’s 2020 ticket. Not only do these two political leaders have a shared history in government, they both have deep ties to the city of El Alto, a growing metropolis resting above La Paz, where President Arce spent the final week of his campaign.
Sitting approximately 4,150 meters above sea level, El Alto rose to prominence with Morales’ ascension to the presidency. Only a few miles outside of La Paz, and mostly comprised of Indigenous peoples—particularly of Aymara decent—El Alto has made substantial advancements in recent years. After enduring decades of social exclusion and persisting through episodes of state violence, the Indigenous peoples of El Alto turned their frustrations into political action, making up more than 70 percent of Morales’ voter base.
In Morales’ first term, it was the people in rural communities like El Alto who advanced not only economically, but also experienced a wave of cultural celebration. Indigenous women, often referred to as “cholitas,” who were long-rejected by Bolivian social life, took public office. Previously shunned clothing styles like polleras—a native-style pleaded skirt—and traditional Bolivian food emerged in the streets and popular restaurants. Tall, colorful new buildings also mirrored the physical expression of the recently acclaimed Indigenous class. As one Aymara architect stated, “with the arrival of our President Evo [Morales], our culture has been brought to the frontline. One can now say: ‘I have money, I can do this if I want to.’ Our culture has lost the fear.”
Indigenous emergence into popular culture gave rise to the term “Aymara bourgeoisie” as these groups started to take to more public spaces and migrate outside of their native towns. Generating new wealth as street merchants and artisans, and sometimes transitioning into larger commercial markets or entering entirely new fields of commerce, Alteños saw an influx of Indigenous migrants from different regions of the country into their newly bustling city. The acknowledgment of the “Aymara bourgeoisie” was also paralleled by official language changes to the constitution. Notably, in a 2009 constitutional change, Morales modified the name of the country from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia, granting greater recognition to the country’s Indigenous groups.
Rising Indigenous leadership went beyond—and gradually away from—former President Morales. The ascension of El Alto’s first female mayor, Soledad Chapetón—also of Aymara decent—again showed the political influence and independence of the Indigenous community. Chapetón’s 2015 victory represented a political redirection from the traditionally Indigenous-associated MAS party of her opponent Edgar Patana, as she campaigned on a ticket for the National Unity party. Chapetón offered a hope to both enforce Indigenous leadership in El Alto while also combatting the corruption that was becoming increasingly associated with MAS, and her election demonstrated Indigenous priority of individual candidacy over party support for Morales’ MAS—especially as the Aymara and other Indigenous communities grew frustrated with Morales’ ongoing hold of power and increasingly superficial attention to Indigenous needs.
The interim presidency of Jeanine Áñez for the majority of 2020 further added to native peoples’ frustrations—as her administration lacked a notable Indigenous presence—and further polarized the country. The 2020 election generated hope that Indigenous communities could reinvigorate the cultural-political movement that had once rocketed El Alto and its Aymara bourgeoisie into new heights, an opportunity on which these communities capitalized.
In the months leading up to the twice-postponed election, Indigenous community members maintained their ardent political activity. Alteños employed public demonstrations to demand a timely election in spite of the country’s hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of such persistent political activity, the October 18 elections saw 88 percent voter turnout with the cities of La Paz and El Alto acting as a microcosm of the polarization throughout Bolivia.
Election polls showed greater support in central La Paz for leading centrist candidate Carlos Mesa, while El Alto predominantly favored leftist Arce. The record voter turnout propelled Arce to the forefront, as he was not only favored by El Alto’s 900,000 inhabitants, but also by a portion of La Paz’s exterior neighborhoods giving him an additional 800,000 votes from the administrative capital. Similar voting trends played out throughout the country which is clearly demonstrated in the provincial voter distribution map below.
Under his campaign of “national unity,” Mr. Arce successfully appealed to his supporters with hopes of progressing the MAS party beyond the legacy of Morales, placing economic stability and a cohesive social structure in the foundation of his “MAS 2.0.” Yet, Arce’s continued approval will be largely contingent upon his advocacy for Indigenous and rural populations, particularly those residing in the highlands of El Alto. A close, consistent attention to the interests and frustrations of the country at large, including those who fall well outside of formal urban centers, could determine whether President Arce sees the same fate as his MAS predecessor. As El Alto has been dubbed “Bolivia’s most politically influential city,” the words of its people, who have warned that a failure by Arce to meet their needs will result in backlash from his stronghold, should be prioritized by the new administration.
Sitting from a position more among the clouds than the buildings of neighboring cities, El Alto conjures the image of a rising political underdog whose Indigenous voice has managed to reverberate throughout the country in the last decade. As Bolivia returns to MAS leadership under Luis Arce, the highland community has shown that it will continue to elevate the interests of Indigenous and rural groups, amplifying their voices from the mountaintops.
Nicole Harrison has a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies and Spanish, with a regional concentration in Latin America. She has worked with several nonprofit and human rights organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean.