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Evo Morales loses chance at a fourth term

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 25/02/2016 Linda C. Farthing

Evo Morales made a choice last September that dramatically altered his future. He could have used his political party's two thirds control of the Bolivian Congress to push through a constitutional amendment to grant him another term, his fourth. Instead, he opted for what he called "the most democratic thing to do".

A national referendum was called for February 21st which he expected he could win with 70% of the vote. He had won his first three elections by unheard of margins of 54%, 64% and 61% and his popularity was high.
Choosing to hold a vote has cost him dearly. By the time most of the results were in late on February 23rd, he had lost by just over two percentage points. The defeat came a month after Morales celebrated ten years as Bolivia's first indigenous and longest consecutive serving President. His present term ends in 2019.
The cobbled together opposition represents the first effort to forge a united front against Morales and his party, the MAS. Its spans the gamut from traditional right wing parties to regions convinced the Morales government has shortchanged them to leftists critical of the government's extraction-heavy model.
Current policies that promote expansion of the agricultural frontier have given Bolivia the highest rate of deforestation in South America. Morales argues that intensifying natural resource extraction is the only way to pull South America's poorest country out of centuries of hardship.
The referendum campaign quickly became a mudslinging exercise. A February 15th survey reported in the Cochabamba newspaper Los Tiempos revealed that only a minority of voters were concerned about the impact of amending the constitution to extend term limits.
"I'm voting 'No' because there is too much corruption in this government", explained La Paz taxi driver Julio Ramos, "and drug trafficking just keeps getting worse." In fact, Bolivia's corruption ratings according to Transparency International have improved significantly under Morales, and his government is credited with repeatedly pursuing the corrupt within its own ranks.

As for drugs, country-wide dispersion of cocaine paste production has alarmed the public, even though little cocaine or paste is consumed in-country. Bolivia is now the major transit country for cocaine and paste from Peru, the world's largest producer to Brazil, the world's second largest consumer.
The highly-emotional referendum campaign sharply divided the country. Kathryn Ledebur of the Bolivia-based advocacy group, the Andean Information Network, worries, "A debate over the values and structure of Bolivian democracy was stunningly absent. Much of the opposition campaign was based on rumors, innuendo, and at times grossly distorted information."
Considerable press attention focused corruption allegations. Two weeks before the vote, the opposition-linked political commentator, Carlos Valverde, accused the President of influence peddling to benefit a former girlfriend.
The campaign was marred by a violent confrontation four days before the vote. Six people died when they were trapped inside at El Alto's City Hall by protestors. Each side in the referendum campaign immediately blamed the other well before the facts were in.
A strong economy and unprecedented state investments had virtually assured a Morales victory in the 2014 presidential election, which he won by 61%. Six months later however, his party lost control over several seats in regional elections. While heralded as the beginning of MAS's downfall, the outcome also revealed a robust democratic process as voters who supported the MAS nationally rejected incompetent or corrupt local MAS candidates. Last September, voters also jettisoned MAS-supported departmental and local autonomy statutes.
In the past year, leftwing governments in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil have stumbled because of plunging commodity prices and corruption scandals. But Morales has stayed immensely popular despite expectations that natural gas revenues will fall by a third this year. The government holds among the highest financial reserves per capita in South America which softens the blow, and the IMF predicts Bolivia will have the highest growth rate in the region in 2016.
In rural areas which share Morales's indigenous heritage, his government has made unparalleled investments in schools, medical centers and roads. According to the World Bank, extreme poverty has fallen by half during his time in office. Edgar Quispe, a MAS party member from rural Santa Cruz, believes that the "If the rightwing wins the 2019 election, everyone will see how poorly they treat people in the countryside, and Morales will be re-elected no problem."
Bolivia's referendum mirrors a push by current Latin American governments, particularly those on the left, to end the term limits originally adopted as a bulwark against military takeovers. Nicaragua and Venezuela have dispensed with them, while in Ecuador, the national assembly passed a constitutional amendment last December to permit President Rafael Correa to run indefinitely once he sits out a term.
Evo told the press February 24th after the vote count was confirmed that the results would be respected. "We have lost a battle but not the war. We will not give up; we will continue the struggle for the poor and future generations with more experience and even more commitment," he said.

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