To the chagrin of the United States and eastern Bolivia, Evo Morales seems set to win the presidency. Whether he can win social peace is another matter
IF EVO MORALES—coca grower, political street fighter and champion of indigenous rights—wins Bolivia's presidential election on December 18th it will be because of voters like Bernardino Montesinos. “The people want change,” says the former silver miner, who now sells lotions and shampoo out of a box in the centre of La Paz, Bolivia's capital. Foreigners have looted Bolivia's natural resources and traditional political parties “do nothing” for the people, explains Mr Montesinos. If Mr Morales becomes president, he will “nationalise everything” and supply technology that his silver mine lacked. An Aymara Indian, Mr Morales is “our blood.”
Bolivia is among the poorest of Latin American republics, and recently the most unstable. To Mr Montesinos and many like him, the election of the first self-proclaimed indigenous president would portend the overthrow of 180 years of oppression of poor, dark Bolivians by richer, whiter ones, and of Bolivia itself by foreign powers. Long feared by the elite, Mr Morales has won over part of the middle class, which is disgusted with corruption and hopeful that he will be less disruptive in office than he has been on the street.
Yet the promise of justice contains the threat of catastrophe. Unlike Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez, Mr Morales is not a leftist who has made peace with democracy and capitalism, offering change without upheaval. He is anathema in Bolivia's richer eastern provinces, which fear his plans to “bury the neo-liberal” state and “refound” the country by rewriting the constitution.
The United States is appalled: Mr Morales leads a union of coca growers, who produce the raw material for cocaine, and flaunts his friendship with Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's rabidly anti-American president. When he runs into resistance he will face a choice. Will he compromise, the only way to govern democratically? Or will he call on his supporters to take to the streets—the tactic which has brought him to the verge of power?
If the polls are right, Mr Morales will win the most votes but not an absolute majority. The newly elected Congress would then choose between him and his closest rival, probably Jorge Quiroga, a conservative former president. Mr Quiroga's negative campaign might just bring victory if anti-Evo voters defect from centrist candidates. Few people think Congress would dare deny Mr Morales the presidency if he leads on the popular vote. But his mandate may be narrow: he looks unlikely to gain the votes of much more than half of Bolivia's indigenous peoples.
Even if Mr Morales loses, the election will bring change. For the first time, Bolivians are electing prefectos (governors) of the country's nine departments who will give the increasingly assertive regions a powerful new voice. Until now, governors have been appointed by the president. The election marks the demise of nearly all the traditional political parties. Mr Morales's Movement to Socialism (MAS) is a confederation of unions and social movements, whose nucleus is his coca growers' union. Mr Quiroga is standing for a “citizens' alliance”, called Podemos.
Such changes will harden Bolivia's divisions. According to Carlos Toranzo, a political scientist in La Paz, the newly elected governors will call the shots in Congress, especially in the Senate, where the eastern regions are over-represented. Few if any will be fromMAS. “Evo won't have the means to rule,” predicts Walter Guevara, an expert on Congress. Mr Quiroga would have more support from Congress and the governors, but would face the rage of the social movements, which have toppled two presidents since 2003.
To govern Bolivia, Mr Morales would have to deal adroitly with three hostile constituencies: the eastern provinces; private investors; and the United States. Yet any concessions to them will be opposed by the social movements. As a candidate he has dealt with this dilemma by pledging to “refound” Bolivia without saying how or what this might cost.
MAS will break Bolivia's reliance on commodity exports and extend development to those “historically excluded”, says Carlos Villegas, one of its economic advisers. The state will become the “fundamental axis” of development, financing small firms, promoting technology and backing big private firms “selectively”. Gas will be nationalised but the sanctity of contracts will be preserved. A MAS government will maintain stability, but the central bank should promote jobs as well as low inflation. It all sounds like a return to the policies that brought bankruptcy and hyperinflation to Bolivia in the 1980s.
As president, Mr Morales would have to make choices. Among the first will be how to deal with the new governors. Those from the east will push for broad autonomy, which could come only after a referendum and constitutional reform. Although some revenues were devolved in the mid-1990s, the central government still hires teachers, doctors and policemen; even local bus routes are laid out in La Paz.
Santa Cruz, gas-rich Tarija and other eastern provinces want these powers transferred to local government. Juan Carlos Urenda, a lawyer in Santa Cruz, says the centre's share of national revenue should be cut from three-quarters to a third. It can continue to set policy on land and natural resources, but the provinces should execute it. MAS backs autonomy in principle, but will balk if it means surrendering control of land or natural resources.
Bolivia's economic prospects largely hinge on the government's handling of natural gas. Privatisation of the oil industry in the mid-1990s brought $3.5 billion of foreign investment, and the discovery of big gas deposits. The left claims it also stripped Bolivia of ownership of its most-prized asset and cheated the government of revenue. After weeks of blockades, in May Congress unilaterally increased royalties on gas output (raising $420m a year) and ordered energy companies to sign new contracts. Foreign investment has since plunged, with firms threatening legal action.
MAS wants to go further, but it is not clear where. Mr Villegas talks of restoring the state's power to set prices and to determine whether to export or keep gas for local consumption. That is part of the new law, although it has not been enforced. The government will negotiate with the gas companies individually, says Mr Villegas. “If we encounter absolute resistance, Bolivia has the sovereign power to make decisions,” he says.
The biggest uncertainty concerns MAS's plan to rewrite Bolivia's constitution in a constituent assembly starting in June. “The country will change at the constituent assembly and not before,” says Juan García Soruco, a MAS candidate for Congress. Its main business, apart from dealing with autonomy, will be to entrench the role of the state in the economy, redistribute land and secure indigenous rights. In the east, where farms are large, this raises the spectre of expropriation. Everywhere, it casts doubt on the rules that business must follow. “Would you invest before the constituent assembly?” asks Branko Marinkovic, who heads Santa Cruz's federation of private enterprise.
Ironically, if Mr Morales really wants to break Bolivia's dependence on commodity exports, his best bet may be the United States. Its trade preferences in labour-intensive industries like clothing and jewellery are worth $150m a year in exports and 100,000 jobs, many in El Alto, a restive city perched above La Paz. These expire at the end of 2006—a prospect that prompted a rare pro-American march last week.
On December 7th, Peru signed a free-trade deal with the United States; Colombia may follow. The United States wants to negotiate a similar agreement with Bolivia, rather than extend its trade preferences. It is also dangling $593m in aid to finance urgently needed infrastructure.
But these offers come with conditions. Foremost among them is a renewed effort to contain the growth of coca. That clashes with Mr Morales's pledge to “depenalise” the leaf (but not the drug). Many Bolivians are fed up with the United States' bullying drug “war”. But aid accounts for a tenth of Bolivia's GDP. Much of it is subject to American approval. If the United States “decertifies” Bolivia on drugs, markets and chequebooks could slam shut.
That would risk driving Mr Morales further into the arms of Venezuela and his own, impatient radical left. On December 10th a group of trade unions and social movements announced that he would have 90 days to “eliminate” the neo-liberal economy. Says Mr Montesinos, “if Evo lets us down, we'll throw him out, too.”