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Bolivia’s socialists are poised for a return, but the challenges are steeper

Luis Arce, center, celebrates with supporters during a news conference at Movement Toward Socialism party headquarters in La Paz, Bolivia, after polls closed on Oct. 18. (Marcelo Perez Del Carpio/Bloomberg News)

LA PAZ, Bolivia — After a year of explosive political developments — a disputed election, the flight of the longtime president, and the appointment of an interim government accused of attacking opponents — Bolivia now finds itself back largely where it all began.

The party of Evo Morales is back. The socialism of Evo Morales is back. And Evo Morales himself — the larger-than-life figure who fled the country last year after being accused of election fraud — says he’ll be back, too.

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But the country to which he’s returning will no longer be his to lead. And the challenges it faces are so vast — the coronavirus pandemic, the economic damage it has wrought, toxic polarization — that this Bolivia is far different from the one he left behind.

Supporters hope that former finance minister Luis Arce, who is presumed to have won the election to succeed Morales, will confront those challenges with the pragmatism he showed when Bolivia outpaced its neighbors in lifting people out of poverty.

“He’s going to do a bit better,” said Rubén Apaza, a 47-year-old voter in La Paz. “He’s more prepared from being an economist. Economically, we’re going to be a lot better.”

Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal has yet to declare a winner in Sunday’s election, but preliminary results indicate that Arce, the candidate of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, captured the needed majority to avoid a runoff vote.

“The votes . . . demonstrated it in a very clear way,” Arce told the BBC. “We are the majority. More than 50 percent.”

Opponents who cast doubt on the legitimacy of last year’s elections quickly conceded defeat.

“The results were overwhelming,” said former president Carlos Mesa, Arce’s closest competitor. “It’s time to recognize there was a winner in the election and move forward in a democratic way.”

Bolivia’s election is a test for Latin American socialism — and democracy

Peaceful protests against MAS descended on the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz on Tuesday night, but the country appears to have avoided a feared repeat of last year’s violence. When state television suggested last year that Morales had won a first-round victory, protesters set fire to election offices and the homes of socialist officials. The Organization of American States said it had found irregularities in the election. Morales fled Bolivia.

In the uncertainty that followed, polarization along ideological, religious and ethnic lines deepened. In a country historically governed by the descendants of Europeans, the Indigenous people who formed Morales’s base feared losing policy and cultural gains won during his 13-year tenure. The elevation of the conservative senator Jeanine Áñez to interim president compounded those concerns. Soon her government was accused of unleashing a wave of repression against Morales’s supporters.

Stitching Bolivia back together after such tumult will be only one of Arce’s challenges.

The novel coronavirus has devastated the country, killing more than 8,500 of its 11.6 million people, one of the world’s highest mortality rates, and further undercut an economy already hobbled by drops in commodities prices and a slowdown in exports. The economy contracted nearly 8 percent in the first half of the year, and unemployment shot to nearly 12 percent in a country where broad social initiatives had lowered that rate to less than 4 percent.

“Things are very different now,” said Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, a transitional president who ceded the sash to Morales in 2006. “When I turned power over to Evo, natural gas was booming and things were looking much nicer in terms of the income.”

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Morales, for all of his incendiary rhetoric, mixed socialism and capitalism, heavy on the capitalism. Without any training in economics, he turned much of the financial policymaking over to Arce.

Arce kept a portrait of Che Guevara in his office but could scarcely be mistaken for a leftist radical. A former banker with a master’s degree in economics from Britain’s University of Warwick, he forged policies that brought enormous returns in the commodities markets, catching a continent-wide exports boom. The windfall brought in revenue for social and infrastructure programs, making tangible improvements in the lives of millions. The number of Bolivians in extreme poverty fell dramatically, from 38 percent of the population to less than 20 percent.

“Evo was much more of a politician, much closer to the people, a frequent traveler around the country,” Rodríguez Veltzé said. “Arce was mostly on the job, handling public financial matters.”

In the minds of some voters, that economic acumen stood in sharp contrast to the interim government’s chaotic and ineffective response to the coronavirus. In May, as the disease charged through Bolivia, the country’s health minister was arrested on charges of corruption. And Áñez at times seemed more interested in politics than public health. She initially vowed not to run for president, but did so anyway. She bowed out last month amid abysmal poll numbers.

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John Walsh, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, said Arce might not endear himself to the people in the way Morales once did. He is less voluble, more cerebral. But Walsh sees that less as a limitation than a potential benefit. What Bolivia needs, he said, is competence, not charisma.

“They right now have to square a difficult circle,” he said. “And that Bolivia’s incoming president is not a charismatic leader about whom there is no cult of personality is going to make governing more palatable for many Bolivians who are not yet ready, the day after, to reconcile themselves to the fact that the MAS, whom they’d thought they’d evicted from power forever, is now coming back.”

McCoy reported from Rio de Janeiro. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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