Former President Evo Morales and President Luis Arce are amid one of the risky examples of political infighting in recent Latin American history. Morales—who is back in Bolivia thanks to Arce—has accused his successor of a variety of misdeeds, including (but not limited to): economic mismanagement, knowingly facilitating international cocaine shipments, hiding information about the suspicious suicide of financial investigator Luis Alberto Colodro, and treason.
Although Arce has been less overt in his criticism of his predecessor, he has openly criticized Evo’s tenure as president. Arce has distanced himself from Morales, the founder and current president of Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), carving out a substantial bloc of congressional allies who often clash with those still loyal to Morales.
Despite the animosity between the two, their public interactions have been amicable and uneventful. They regularly make appearances together, hugging and referring to one other as hermano Evo and hermano Lucho (though sometimes in the context of subtle insults). Evo smiles with Arce at sporting events, Arce’s allies accuse Evo of orchestrating the 2019 political crisis that ousted him from power.
Why are these powerful men covering their mudslinging with staged events and awkward smiles? Because both are jockeying to run for president in 2025. And the longer their competition drags on, the greater the opportunity for MAS’ opposition on the right.
One Party, Two Leaders
One cannot understand modern Bolivia without understanding Evo Morales. First, Morales is MAS, Bolivia’s ruling party which he founded in 1997 and led to three (arguably four) consecutive presidential victories. His election in 2005 was an undeniably momentous accomplishment for Bolivia’s indigenous community, which makes up at least 40 percent of the country. As president, Evo spearheaded a new constitution, ratified in 2009, which established Bolivia as a plurinational state (guaranteeing rights and autonomy for indigenous groups) and coincided with a dramatic expansion of the state’s control over natural resources including natural gas and lithium. Morales’ administration capitalized on resource booms to redistribute resources to the poor, drastically reducing inequality and extreme poverty. Morales was an immensely popular and powerful president, winning reelection twice in 2009 and 2014.
After some questionable legal maneuvering, Morales tried to run for a fourth term in 2019, leading to the infamous series of events that caused his ouster (which may or may not have amounted to a coup d’état, depending on whom you ask). Evo Morales returned to Bolivia after a year of exile as a diminished, yet still influential force in MAS. Today, he still speaks to the public daily, giving endorsements and orders to the dozens of deputies who still owe their careers to him. He also has the voter base and knowledge of Bolivia’s political machine necessary to be a major force in the 2025 election, and he possesses an irrevocable importance to the country’s indigenous communities (MAS’ core voting bloc) that cannot be matched by any political rival. His legacy is immensely important in Bolivia, but it has been tarnished by recent events. At 63 years old, Morales believes that he has a chance to redeem himself and write another chapter of his story with another presidential term, and so do his many supporters.
On the other hand, Arce has proven himself to be far more than a placeholder president. Winning over 50 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2020 election, Arce has slowly but surely formed an independent modus operandi and accumulated a sizeable group of allies in a political party historically dominated by the actions and personality of Evo Morales. Despite a banking scare, a poor corruption record and a shaky economic outlook, the Arce administration has managed to achieve modest economic growth under difficult global circumstances and install a sense of calm relative to recent years marked by crisis.
The chances of Morales’ return to the presidency have changed after Arce’s two years in office. Arce has recast the appeal of Morales’ populist resource nationalism from a more technocratic, less personalistic, standpoint. In the event of a contentious MAS primary, Arce can message his candidacy as a proven alternative to the drama that defined Evo Morales’ presidency. In addition, Arce currently holds the reins of power in Bolivia, offering unparalleled quasi-authoritarian advantages on the campaign trail. All signs seem to point to Arce’s 2025 nomination.
What Could Happen Next?
Both Morales and Arce appear to have viable paths to securing MAS’ nomination for the 2025 election. So far, neither man appears willing to back down from their aspirations—even travelling to Havana to hash things out with Miguel Díaz Canel couldn’t smooth things over. MAS appears to have already descended into a civil war between evistas and arcistas, one which might not be resolved until the party primaries in mid-2025.
As long as Arce and Morales both run for president, their conflict will continue to escalate. Any pretense of unity will likely be dropped; Arce could move to invalidate Morales’ candidacy (as seems to be the norm lately); Morales could threaten to formally break from Arce’s coalition and take his congressional allies with him. Corruption allegations will continue to fly in both directions.
The effects of the Arce-Morales feud could have dire implications for Bolivia’s left: The longer it continues, the more it benefits the conservative opposition. The idea of MAS’ two leading political figures damaging each other’s images and possibly splitting the party’s vote is a very attractive prospect for Bolivia’s right. Though MAS would nonetheless be difficult to defeat in a runoff, competition between Arce and Morales will lessen the degree of difficulty for either’s second round opponent, creating a tighter race.
While Morales and Arce have been busy disparaging one another, they have forgotten about the real threat to Bolivia’s long-dominant leftist party: the well-entrenched elites with deep ties to the country’s conservative and right-wing parties. If MAS is defeated in 2025, Morales and Arce can expect to face retribution from a conservative administration equal to or greater than that which was doled out to Jeanine Áñez and Luis Fernando Camacho. Bolivia has certainly been no exception to the regional trend of former presidents finding themselves in prison. The risks of MAS losing the next general election extend far beyond mundane policy disagreements—especially for Evo Morales. This is all to say that MAS would be wise to settle on a 2025 presidential candidate sooner rather than later.
Jack Quinn is an Editorial Assistant at Americas Quarterly. He is based in New York.