Bolivians Embrace Another Socialist After Ousting Evo Morales

After a series of stumbles, Bolivia’s Interim President Jeanine Añez, shown on Sunday, failed to draw enough voters to her cause.

Photo: joedson alves/Shutterstock

In the 11 months since President Evo Morales resigned and fled Bolivia, the right-wing interim government, seeking to undo his policies while dealing with scandal and pandemic, failed to get voters on its side—paving the way for his left-wing party to retake power.

Luis Arce, an ally of the former president in his Movement Toward Socialism party, was elected in a landslide on Sunday. Mr. Arce, seen as more moderate than Mr. Morales, enacted mostly business-friendly policies during a 12-year tenure as economy minister.

He now plans to secure more investment for the country’s all-important natural-gas sector. Yet he is also expected to renew relations with the region’s leftist governments and increase spending to reactivate a moribund economy battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

MAS, as his party is known, could end up with majorities in both houses of Bolivia’s congress, according to two quick counts by polling firms. Official results have yet to be fully tabulated.

A big factor in his win was the poor performance of conservative, interim President Jeanine Añez, said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivia expert at Florida International University.

“Jeanine Añez had the historic opportunity to be a transitional figure but she just absolutely blew it,” he said.

In August, supporters of Ex-President Evo Morales called for the resignation of Interim President Añez in El Alto, Bolivia.

Photo: luis gandarillas/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

After Mr. Morales, his vice president and both heads of congress resigned last year, Ms. Añez, as vice president of Bolivia’s senate, was next in line for the job. The resignations came amid violent protests that broke out when Mr. Morales tried to claim a fourth consecutive term in last October’s election, which was marred by irregularities.

The Añez administration “didn’t act like an interim government. It pretended like it was an elected government with a mandate,” said Jim Shultz, who heads the Democracy Center, a policy group founded in Bolivia and now based in the U.S.

Instead of focusing on overseeing a clean, do-over election as she had pledged, Ms. Añez quickly sought to undo many of Mr. Morales’ popular policies, moves that were applauded by her conservative supporters. She expelled volunteer Cuban doctors, restored full diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Israel and joined Washington in a regional campaign against Venezuela’s authoritarian regime, long a Morales ally.

Scandals also undercut her administration. Shortly after Ms. Añez was sworn-in last November, soldiers and police were involved in violent clashes that killed more than 30 protesters. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, has accused her government of carrying out a judicial witch hunt against Mr. Morales and his supporters.

In May, Ms. Añez fired her health minister, Marcelo Navajas, who was then arrested on corruption charges stemming from the purchase of 179 ventilators for which the government paid more than double the normal price—wasting $2.6 million, according to prosecutors. Mr. Navajas has denied wrongdoing.

Under her watch, Bolivia logged one of the world’s highest Covid-19 per capita death rates, with nearly 8,500 fatalities. Meanwhile, lockdown measures are expected to shrink the economy by nearly 8% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Ms. Añez also launched a bid for a full term as president, though she had promised not to do so. With her job-approval rate sagging, she withdrew last month.

A spokesman for Ms. Añez didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The date of the election was also a factor, with the pandemic forcing electoral authorities to twice postpone it. By Sunday, outrage that many voters felt over accusations that Mr. Morales tried to steal last year’s election had given way to anger over Ms. Añez’s rule and despair over the economy, said Gonzalo Mendieta, a lawyer and newspaper columnist in La Paz.

“That helped the MAS recover,” he said.

Also fueling the comeback of Mr. Morales’s party was the failure of its opponents to unite behind a single candidate. The anti-MAS vote was split between Carlos Mesa, a centrist former president who was runner-up with 31% of the vote, and Luis Fernando Camacho, a businessman from the eastern city of Santa Cruz who finished third with about 14%.

Mr. Mesa had promised to rebuild Bolivia’s democratic institutions in the wake of Mr. Morales’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the tenure of the unelected Ms. Añez. But his campaign was seen as so lackluster that one editorial cartoon depicted him at home in his pajamas stumping for votes on his smartphone.

To help spark economic demand, Mr. Arce has promised a one-time cash payment of $125 to all Bolivian women, disabled people and the unemployed. He wants to create 130,000 jobs mining lithium to manufacture batteries. On the campaign trail, he constantly reminded voters of his tenure as economy minister, a period when Bolivia registered some of the highest growth rates in Latin America.

Sunday’s results reflected “an absolute nostalgia for the boom years” when Mr. Morales was president, said Mr. Gamarra.

Mr. Morales, in exile in Argentina, vowed on Monday to return to Bolivia.

But Mr. Arce has tried to dispel fears that he would be a puppet president with his former boss pulling the strings. He has also avoided the polarizing depictions of Bolivia as a nation divided between a white elite and a poorer indigenous population, which largely supports the MAS. Mr. Morales was the country’s first indigenous president.

“We are going to govern for all Bolivians,” Mr. Arce said in a predawn speech on Monday. “We will build a united country.”

But MAS Senator Lineth Guzmán said hard-liners in the party are already demanding a larger role for Mr. Morales and criminal prosecutions against interim-government officials they accuse of rights abuses and graft.

For Mr. Shultz of the Democracy Center, Mr. Arce’s victory came a year too late.

“This is the election that Bolivia would’ve had a year ago if Evo had respected the constitution,” Mr. Shultz said, referring to Mr. Morales’s failed bid to seek a fourth term and the turmoil that followed. “Bolivia would’ve been spared all of the trauma over the last year.”

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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