Sunday, April 14, 2024

LATIN AMERICA | 14-10-2019 13:37

Evo Morales faces toughest test yet to keep power in Bolivia

Polls point to a close race in next week’s election, in which Bolivia’s longest-serving leader is seeking a controversial fourth term.

He was a llama shepherd from the Bolivian highlands who one day became the first indigenous president of a majority indigenous nation, a leftist union leader of rowdy street protests who came to preside over more than a decade of business-boosting economic growth in South America's poorest country.

Now Evo Morales may be facing his toughest test as president. Voters once excited by his fairy tale rise have grown wary of his reluctance to leave power and uneasy at his policies.

Morales coasted to victory in previous elections, becoming the longest-serving leader of a nation long notorious for instability. But polls point to a close race in the October 20 vote, where he will seek a fourth term.

"After a long time, we're facing very tight elections," said Franklin Pareja, a political science professor in La Paz.

While opinion surveys show Morales leading, they also indicate he may not win outright in the first round, setting up a December runoff election in which he would be in danger of losing to a united opposition.

Surrounded by nations reeling from economic crises, Bolivia under Morales remains a rare example of stability and growth. The 59-year-old president is credited with pragmatic economic stewardship that spread Bolivia's natural gas and mineral wealth among the masses.

Since he took office in 2006, the economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5%, well above the regional average, and the International Monetary Fund predicts it will grow at 4 percent this year.

Following a boom in commodities prices a decade ago, Morales paved roads, sent Bolivia's first satellite to space and curbed inflation. Stadiums, markets, schools, state enterprises and even a village bear his name.

Known for his charisma and a folksy sense of humour, he remains highly popular among Bolivia's poorest.

"Morales has set the presence of the state in every single corner," Pareja said. The president, he added, "revamped the self-confidence of Bolivians. He marked a before and after."

But conservatives have always distrusted the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party and many Bolivians were upset at his attempt to seek another re-election despite a popular referendum that upheld term limits.  He was able to run only because of a Supreme Court ruling that the limits violated his political rights.

Some also complain of alleged excesses, such as a USD $7 million museum that opened in 2017 in his hometown of Orinoca, a highland village of poor farmers and llama shepherds where only a few streets are paved and many homes lack potable water and sewage systems.

After first taking office, he reduced his salary and promised austerity. But shortly after, he bought a new airplane and built a 26-story presidential palace with a heliport.

While Morales has avoided the personal corruption scandals that have tarred or toppled leaders in neighbouring Brazil, Peru and Argentina, Human Rights Watch has accused his government of undermining judicial independence by arbitrarily dismissing nearly 100 judges since 2017. The group said the judges were not given any reason for the dismissals by a Magistrates Council dominated by allies of Morales.

Bolivia's top electoral court accepted his candidacy for a fourth term despite a constitutional ban and the referendum against such re-election.

Environmentalists and many young people were angered this year with his response to thousands of forest fires that many say were encouraged by his push to develop areas with slash-and-burn agriculture. Some indigenous groups have been upset by development efforts on their lands.

Even in his hometown, some are wary.

"Before we saw him more concerned about the people. Now, not so much," said a woman who has a modest neighbourhood store in Orinoca. She would reveal only her first name, María, saying she feared what the government could do if she spoke out freely in Morales' hometown.

"If he goes out [of office] or gets [re-elected], it's all the same to me," she said.

Morales, born in 1959, herded llamas as an Aymara child on Bolivia's wind-swept highlands plateau and accompanied his father to Argentina as an impoverished migrant. His family grew coca, an important traditional tea that is also the raw material for cocaine, and he rose to prominence as a leader of a coca growers' union fighting US efforts to ban the plant.

In his spare time, he is also an avid soccer fan who has often played with journalists, union leaders, diplomats and even other presidents. Morales has ordered the construction of playing fields nationwide and collects jerseys from professional players, including Argentine star Lionel Messi.

Morales has also attempted to promote indigenous cultures that were long looked down upon, and has often celebrated reverence for the Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

"There's a romantic vision of Morales abroad, especially in Europe. They see him as the indigenous man who reached power," Pareja said. "But here, we see a leader who is contradictory in his speech, especially when it comes to Mother Earth."

– AP

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