THE December 2009 elections in Bolivia and Chile, which share a contested border, were noted for the electorates markedly different positions. The people of Bolivia gave the incumbent President Evo Morales a thumping mandate. The election in Chile was more tightly contested. Though the second round was held only in January, it was clear from the results of the first round that the Centre-Left coalitions 20-year hold on the government in Chile was coming to an end.
In the first round, Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire businessman, won 44 per cent of the votes. Eduardo Frei, the candidate of the Centre-Left Concertacion coalition, came second with 36 per cent of the votes whereas the independent socialist candidate, Marco Enriquez-Ominami, won 20 per cent. In the final round, 52 per cent of the votes went to Pinera, Chiles third richest person. The victory will make him the first right-wing President to hold office since the end of General Augusto Pinochets military dictatorship in 1990.
It was clear that many supporters of the independent left-wing candidate voted against politics as usual, symbolised by the Centre-Left governments of the last two decades. There was also a high degree of abstention among voters, illustrating the disenchantment of the electorate with the lack of real choices.
Though sections of the Western media have tried to portray the victory of Pinera as a setback for the Left in Latin America, most analysts blame the electoral reverses in Chile on the lacklustre personality of Frei and the anti-incumbency factor. Politics in the country seems to have become personality, not ideology, driven. The current President, Michelle Bachelet, has an approval rating of over 75 per cent but was barred from running again because of constitutional constraints. She is eligible to contest again after four years. Frei could not, however, translate Michelle Bachelets popularity into votes in his favour in the second round. Frei, who belongs to the Christian Democratic Party, was himself President in the 1990s.
There was nothing much to distinguish between the economic and political platform of the two opposing candidates. The right-wing candidate ran a slick campaign aided by his riches. The right-wing combination Pinera led was named the Coalition of Change, taking a leaf out of the strategy adopted by Barack Obama during his campaign for the United States presidency. Pinera pledged not to make any changes in the economic policies initiated by the Centre-Left or reinstate any politician who had served under the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet.
Like his Centre-Left rival, Pinera also promised to continue with the progressive social programmes initiated by the current Socialist President, including the extension of child care and state assistance to non-working mothers. After winning the elections, one of the first things that Pinera did was to praise Bachelet and seek her advice. As the right-wing parties lack a legislative majority, Pinera may have to include Concertacion candidates in his Cabinet. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the new government to enact legislation. The President-elect, who is to take office in March, has already started talking about forming a government of national unity.
Pineras elder brother, Jose, was one of the architects of Pinochets neoliberal economic policies and had served as Labour Minister under him. The Centre-Left governments that followed Pinochet also retained most of the neoliberal economic programmes of the dictatorship, which led to the Chilean miracle. The countrys economy, which registered impressive growth figures throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, has been experiencing negative growth in the past two years. The official unemployment rate is over 10.2 per cent. Pineras promise to create a million more jobs during his term seems to have swayed voters.
The contrasting triumph of Evo Morales and his party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), Bolivia, with more than two-thirds of the votes, is an unequivocal endorsement of the radical policies he ushered in after taking office four years ago.
The right wing, which until last year was threatening to break up the country and was staging violent protests, is in disarray. But the right-wing candidate, Manfred Reyes Villa, a former Governor, got the majority of votes in the key province of Santa Cruz, which is threatening secession.
The MAS is now in total control of both the houses of parliament, having won two-thirds of the seats. The ruling party can now call for referendums for further amendments to the Constitution and will be able to make key judicial appointments.
Morales will now have a much freer hand in implementing his ambitious land reforms programme in the new five-year term. Already 26 million hectares has been redistributed, benefiting 98,454 families. Morales ran for a second term after successfully getting the Constitution amended by a referendum last year. The old Constitution had restricted the term of the President to just one.
The indigenous people, who form the majority of the populace, will be further empowered with the re-election of Morales. Since taking office, he has created quotas in the army and other government services for indigenous people, who have been discriminated against for a long time. His government set up a special school to train diplomats from indigenous backgrounds. Three new universities for indigenous people have also been set up.
The Morales government also achieved the noteworthy feat of eradicating illiteracy with the help of friendly governments such as those in Cuba and Venezuela. It also managed to reduce extreme poverty by 6 per cent while reducing foreign debt from $4.4 billion to $2.4 billion. A notable achievement of Morales as President has been the nationalisation of the countrys hydrocarbon sector. This move improved the governments revenues substantially. Before nationalisation, gas was sold at $0.6 cents per million thermal units. Today it is sold at $5 per million thermal units.
Many poor households have now got natural gas connections. In the three years since the nationalisation, Bolivia earned $6.413 billion. Much of the windfall profits have been used to improve the public infrastructure of the nine State governments and 327 municipalities.
Morales plans to bring around 40 per cent of the countrys economy under state control. At present around 28 per cent is under the control of the government. The country has huge deposits of lithium but does not have the expertise or the capital to mine it. The metal is used for computer and camera batteries and is in tremendous demand worldwide. Morales said that he was ready to guarantee investments to exploit the countrys lithium deposits but warned that Bolivia needed partners, not patrons.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hailed the victory of Morales as a victory for all of Latin America. He described it as a victory for popular constitutionalism, which has it roots in Venezuela. Venezuela was the first country that changed the Constitution in the region so that it reflected the aspirations of the common people. The Bolivarian Constitution adopted in 1999 started a trend. Ecuador and Bolivia soon followed suit and put in place a popular Constitution approved by referendums. Brazil and Argentina may also do the same in the near future.
As Chavez pointed out, this development is viewed with hostility in Washington and by the privileged classes in Latin America. The President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted when he talked about the possibility of convening a Constituent Assembly. Washington, Chavez has warned on several occasions, is not averse to staging military coups in countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia to stem the rising tide of popular governments in the region.
Morales took the oath of office for his second term on January 22. As many as 30,000 people took to the streets of the capital La Paz to celebrate the occasion. Comrades, democracy has been consolidated the colonial state has died and the multicultural state has been born, declared Morales. Among those present on the occasion were Chavez and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.
In his address to his countrymen, Morales said that he would focus on building an inclusive Bolivia, consolidating on the tremendous achievements made during his first term in office.
When the unions and the social leaders truly represent the people and work for the country, as we are doing in Bolivia, revolution becomes democratic and based on conscience the time has come out to seek equality, dignity and unity beginning from solidarity among all our peoples, he said.