Victory of a pragmatic socialist

November 16, 2014

The many meanings of Morales’s third electoral success in Bolivia

Victory of a pragmatic socialist

On October 12, nothing less than an electoral earthquake hit Bolivia and the region beyond. Evo Morales, the sitting president, and leader of the Movement for Socialism Party, won an unprecedented third presidential term despite being the focus of wide spread opprobrium in large sections of the international press. He won his third term by garnering 60 per cent of the popular, with the runner up, Samuel Doria Medina, a cement magnate, trailing far behind at 25 per cent.

This emphatic third term victory sets the seal on his deft economic stewardship of the country, with the previously marginalised majority -- the indigenous Bolivian -- staking out an increasing share in the general prosperity.

Evo Morales rose to fame as a coca trade union leader, resisting the neo-liberal policies of two decades prior to his election in 2006. After narrowly failing to capture the presidency in 2002, Morales romped home in 2006 with a record vote share of 57 per cent. With this election, Morales has consolidated his reputation as pragmatic socialist. His electoral victory, widely predicted, is largely owed to his pro-poor and pro-indigenous policies pursued since the assumption of presidential office in 2006.

His first act on assuming the presidential office in 2006 was to put into immediate effect the October agenda, drawn up by a wide array of social movements over the previous years, advocating nationalisation of the Bolivia natural gas and hydrocarbon industry. Ignoring the expected protests from multinationals and the business, Morales immediately pressed ahead with the nationalisation of all natural gas and hydrocarbon industry. The move was to lay the basis of distribution of wealth and resources from the rich and multinational to the poor and the state coffers. The coffers of the state thus beefed up were prudently used to fund radical social programme and other socially progressive measures which have knock on effects on poverty alleviation, entrenched inequality and the minimum wage.

In 2009, Morales amended the constitution to introduce gender parity and to restore equality right to the historically disadvantaged indigenous Indians of Bolivia of which Morales is one of the members. This radical act, along with a whole host of similarly intended measures, has added to his enduring progressive record over the years.

Following up on the constitutional amendment, he turbo-charged the social programme. Under his watch, economy has grown at an annual rate of 5 per cent which has lifted up more than a million people out of poverty. Between 2006 and 2014, poverty has reduced by 25 per cent while extreme poverty by 43 per cent. This achievement has been undergirded by an astronomical rise in the minimum wage; it has seen an unprecedented spike of 87 per cent.

More importantly, the widespread and entrenched inequality has reduced faster than any other country in the region. Under Morales’ rule, the income of the poorest 10 per cent has grown by 14.4 per cent as compared to the 0.1 per cent of the richest 10 per cent. This is a trend-defying achievement which is rare in today’s increasingly unequal world. This in itself constitutes an achievement which deserves glowing credit from international development institutions currently fixated with rising inequality in the world.

Alongside this signature achievement, massive dollops of money have been poured into a social programme for the elderly, school children and the mothers. Overall, the social spending increase has been 45 per cent. Together these programmes have transformed the social, political and economic landscape of the country. No wonder Morales’ signature campaign slogan "with Evo we are doing well" has resonated across all classes and across all the country. This is evident in the scale of his victory.

He won eight out of nine regions of the country. From his viewpoint, the sweetest win to savour was from Santa Cruz region, historically rabidly anti-Morales, affluent and privileged enclave. There Morales won 57 per cent share of the vote. Though these statistics and solid record of transformative change in themselves fully explain the enduring popularity of this pragmatic socialist, Morales’s victory holds important lessons and trends which are worthy of emulation by other transformational political leaders of the world.

First, Evo Morales has shown, like Lula De Silva of Brazil, that politicians with background in social and trade union movement are mostly likely to inaugurate radical and lasting social programmes and robustly tackle issues of inequality and poverty. Second, Morales’ victory also demonstrates the success of a pragmatic type of socialist politics which can deliver both economic growth and redistribute the fruits of that growth among the deprived and poor section of the population.

Third, the economic growth does not have to mean more growth and enrichment for the already rich and bare minimum growth for those already desperately poor. Fourth, the nationalisation, if managed well, cannot just fortify the state but also improve standard of life for the majority of the population. The Bolivian government has built up foreign exchange reserves to a level which, at 48 per cent of the Bolivian GDP, are higher than China’s relative to its GDP.

Fifth, despite the policy of nationalisation, the country can still attract foreign investment. This gives lie to the notion that nationalization always leads to the withdrawal of foreign investment. Under Morales, Bolivia has been the recipient of the highest share of foreign investment in the regions despite its socialist policies.

Sixth, Morales victory further shows that pragmatic model of socialism can not only work but also attract the praise of international financial institutions such as the IMF. Yet these successes are freighted with some apprehensions. One apprehension is that this economic miracle and social advances racked up so far are too reliant on extractive industries such as gas and oil. The commodity-fuelled hike in the hydrocarbon industry may not last forever. This sets the difficult challenge of ensuring the longevity of social and political gains while diversifying country’s overreliance on hydrocarbons.

From this term onward, his legacy will hinge on pulling off this miracle. Already he has brought the country out from political instability and perpetual coups to a politically stable, economically equal and socially progressive country.

Victory of a pragmatic socialist