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BOLIVIA
Evo Morales poised to win presidential election
Will Bolivia's vote bring real change?

By Tom Lewis | December 16, 2005 | Page 6

EVO MORALES and the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) were leading opinion polls going into Bolivia's general elections on December 18.

Morales, an indigenous leader and head of Bolivia's federation cocaleros, or coca farmers, is expected to win the presidential contest with 30 to 35 percent of the vote, following a campaign season that reflects a polarized nation.

Morales' platform includes nationalization and industrialization of Bolivia's natural gas resources as well as the convening of a Constituent Assembly. If Morales doesn't get 50 percent plus one of the votes, the election will be decided in the Bolivian Congress.

Ex-President Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga--a U.S.-educated businessman, former IBM executive and the man responsible for killing dozens of protesters during his brief stint as Bolivia's president in 2001-2002--holds down second place in the polls. His coalition, known as PODEMOS, stands for more of the same neoliberal economic and social policies that have deprived the majority of Bolivians of any hope of leaving poverty behind.

In third place is Samuel Doria Medina, a nationalist politician whose Unidad Nacional (UN) is attempting to occupy the center between Morales and Quiroga. Doria Medina owns the largest cement company in Bolivia, as well as the country's Burger King franchise.

While Evo will most likely receive the largest number of votes, it is not clear how much of his plan for Bolivia could actually put into effect. First, the pressure from the international financial community and transnational corporations will be tremendous.

Evo and running mate, Álvaro García Linera, have sought to reassure financial markets by saying that they want to pursue a form of "state capitalism" in Bolivia. Their aim is to use the state to redistribute the country's wealth by checking the most harmful excesses of the transnationals. García Linera says that conditions for socialism don't exist in Bolivia, and that Bolivia will be capitalist for at least the next 50 to 100 years.

But many fear this means Evo will end up following the path of Brazil's President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. Once in office, the former factory worker and union leader has sacrificed much-needed domestic social programs to demands from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for debt repayment and "free market" reforms.

Second, in order to move into the president's office, Evo will have to form a coalition government--most probably with Doria Medina and the UN--which would pull his government further to the right.

Third, polls predict that the right and center-right will still dominate the Congress. In fact, the MAS may not even win a single one of the country's nine governorships.

Recognizing that these problems could cripple a Morales government, some sectors of the MAS have launched a debate over what to do in the case of a first-place victory December 18. According to a source close to Evo, cited by Jim Schultz of the Cochabamba- and San Francisco-based Democracy Center, the MAS could forego the presidency and use its electoral mandate instead to mount street pressure for the immediate convening of a Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly has long been the main promise of the MAS.

Such a move might shore up and even expand Evo's credentials with his base, while at the same time enabling him to avoid falling flat on his face in office. But if Evo wins big, the lure of the presidency and the possibilities for political patronage it would bring might prove too much to resist.

From another perspective, the elections are viewed by many in the social movements as not all that decisive for Bolivia's future. Oscar Olivera, leader of Cochabamba's "water wars," an uprising against transnational capital in April 2000, recalls that these "elections aren't something that we asked for, ever."

The early elections were, in fact, called to impose a solution to the political crisis created last May and June by a mass rebellion that toppled ex-President Carlos Mesa.

The agenda of the social movements and the revolutionary left at the time centered on nationalizing natural gas resources. But Evo joined the call for nationalization only at the last minute, and then agreed to early elections as a way of ending the a standoff. Like October 2003, when former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was ousted during a previous struggle over gas privatization, the main role of the MAS in May/June 2005 was to help restrain the social movements.

Olivera sees no reason to trust a Morales government to bring fundamental change. "What the social movements need to do now," he argues, "is to continue accumulating popular forces, as we have been doing since 2000, to build up our ability to pressure whatever government that comes. A Morales government would be less difficult to move, but it will still be difficult."

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