Bolivian political parties (a primer)
bolivia | by Miguel Centellas | 06 Feb, 2004 at 12:14 PM | comments (0) | trackback (0)

Since the 1982 transition to democracy, Bolivia evolved a multiparty system revolving around three major parties (MNR, ADN, MIR). These are the parties that produced the nation's presidents since 1985. For much of this time, the party system seemed balanced between two blocks (MNR & ADN-MIR) which alternated in & out of office. The party system also included, of course, numerous other parties of various size & strength.

The following is a list of the most significant political parties, including a brief history & ideological description. Keep in mind that this is only a superficial look at Bolivia's parties & party system, in order to keep this post relatively short.

The Big Three

MNR: The Movimiento Nacionalist Revolucionario is the oldest political party. Founded in 1942 by young men of the Chaco War generation, it espoused a blend of nationalism and corporatism The MNR came to power in the 1952 April Revolution which was at its time considered one of the most significant social revolutions of the 20th century. The MNR one-party, corporatist state ended in 1964 w/ a military coup.

Since 1985, when Paz Estenssoro (one of the MNR's founders) came to power, the MNR shifted from its nationalist discourse to a center-right neoliberal party. Estenssoro's administration dismantled much of the revolutionary state apparatus he helped create, opening Bolivia to the international economy. Estenssoro's planning minister (Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada) first became president in 1993, and instituted sweeping economy reforms (including capitalization of state-owned industries) along w/ a decentralization of the state (allowing for election of municipal governments).

While the MNR is a national organization, it's strongest support comes from the eastern departments — Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija — where it wins about 50% of the vote. MNR has never placed worse than second in a national election.

ADN: Acción Deomocratica Nacionalista was founded in 1979 as an electoral vehicle for then-dictator Hugo Banzer, who took power in a 1971 coup supported by MNR & FSB. Banzer grouped together several members of his administration who shared a nationalist, pro-US, anti-union view — baptizing ADN as a right-wing party. During the 1980s, however, Banzer supported the move towards democracy & free elections.

Although ADN gained the most votes in 1985, Banzer conceded the presidency after parliament elected Estenssoro. ADN did, however, support the MNR presidency from parliament in its neoliberal reform packages. A break w/ MNR in 1989 turned Banzer away from supporting Goni (who won the popular vote) and instead made an alliance w/ MIR (which came in third), electing Paz Zamora president. Since 1989, ADN & MIR have been together — in or out of power (even running a joint electoral list in 1993). Although this seems odd, since ADN is center-right & MIR is center-left, the two parties share a similar view of state nationalism. Banzer died in 2001, leaving the future of his party uncertain.

ADN's strongest support comes from the major cities of La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba, as well as the eastern camba departments (where it usually comes in a close second to MNR). Although, ADN suffered a shattering defeat in 2002 w/ less than 5% of the national vote, it still swept the departments of Beni & Pando.

MIR: Founded by "new left" intellectual youth in exile, Jaime Paz Zamora has led the center-left Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria since the 1980s. They party actively resisted the Banzer and subsequent military regimes. It participated in the UDP (Unidad Democratica Popular) government (1982-85) — Paz Zamora was vice-president. The collapse of the UDP government & its economic policy discredited the Bolivian left wholesale; MIR was the only party to survive.

In 1989, a potential three-way stalemate was broken when Banzer ordered ADN parliamentarians to vote for Paz Zamora (third place finisher in the elections). The subsequent (and somewhat odd) ADN-MIR alliance remained unbroken until 2002. Despite having criticized MNR's neoliberal economic model, Paz Zamora's administration continued the basic neoliberal framework.

MIR's strongest support comes from southern Bolivia: Potosí, Chuquisaca, and western Tarija. It also has pockets of support in western Santa Cruz and the Beni-Brazil frontier. MIR has never placed better than third in a national election.

Populist parties

CONDEPA: Founded in 1988 by popular singer Carlos Palenque, Conciencia de Patria was the first of the major populist parties to emerge. It was always a regional party, however, since it won most of its votes in La Paz (specifically among the urban poor of El Alto). In 2002, the party disintegrated amidst internal squabbles.

In part, CONDEPA disintegrated after the death of the very charismatic Palenque. But CONDEPA won for itself, during its brief history, a reputation for extreme corruption, nepotism, and incompetence. In 1997, CONDEPA joined Banzer's megacoalión; constantly demanding more power w/in the coalition (including the prefecture of Santa Cruz, where it won less than 1% of the vote), CONDEPA was kicked out of the coalition only a year later. The party's fate was sealed after its handling of the mayorship of El Alto.

UCS: The roots of Unidad Cívica de Solidaridad were also founded in 1988 by Max Fernández (though UCS didn't compete in a national election until 1993), owner of the national brewery. At first, the party's votes were centered around Oruro. But after Fernández died and the party was taken over by his son, Johnny Fernández, the main source of support for UCS became the urban & rural poor of Santa Cruz. Like CONDEPA, UCS has very little in terms of ideological content, and mostly revolves around its political caudillos, the Fernández family.

Under the less-able Johnny Fernández, UCS has also gained a reputation for corruption, nepotism, and incompetence. The Fernández family was implicated in a massive tax-evasion scandal, which has yet to be resolved. The current handling of the Santa Cruz mayorship has left many disillusioned. Nevertheless, UCS does play better w/ others than CONDEPA did, and has been a coalition member in every government since 1993.

NFR: Although not quite as "populist" (in terms of anti-neoliberal discourse) as CONDEPA or UCS, many also qualify Nueva Fuerza Republicana as a populist party (though of a more "traditional right" sort). In part, because the party took its name from its founder Manfred Reyes Villa (the middle letters of his first name). Reyes Villa, formerly of ADN (and even more formerly a body guard for dictator Luís García Meza) created NFR as a political vehicle to consolidate his power base in Cochabamba.

As a popular and successful mayor of Cochabamba (Bolivia's third-largest city), Reyes Villa campaigned for the presidency in 2002 and came close to winning. Early polls had him easily beating MNR's Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. In the end, however, NFR came in a close third behind MNR & MAS. Votes for NFR were scattered nation-wide, though data suggests highest percentages for areas around urban areas w/ a strong NFR machine.

Small ideological parties

MBL: Movimiento Bolivia Libre broke away from MIR — taking most of the latter party's inteligentsia w/ it — between 1985-89. Essentially, it comprised of public intellectuals who broke w/ Paz Zamora over various issues (such as his alliance w/ ADN). MBL is a more ideological (though still pragmatic) "new left" party that occupies a powerful position in the party system's center-left despite its small numbers. In part, it's strength comes from its solid intellectual base (many MBL dirigentes are respected social scientists and/or NGO directors) and its staunch opposition to corruption.

MBL reached its climax in 1993 when, despite receiving only 5% of the national vote, its post-electoral coalition w/ MNR gave it tremendous & disproportionate power. Many of the reforms of that administration — especially the Law of Popular Participation — are credited directly to MBL intellectuals. The small party also controlled many ministries.

While MBL has lost some of its strength, it's still a significant party — disproportionate to its vote strength. Also, the current mayor of La Paz, Juan del Granado, is a former MBL militant who now heads the MSM (Movimiento Sin Miedo).

MRTKL: The Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Katari de Liberación is part of a broader katarista movement in Bolivian politics. Traditionally localized to the paceño altiplano, katarista parties in general had some appeal to the more "Andean" regions of Bolivia. The general focus of katarista parties has been greater inclusion for and acceptance of indigenous peoples in national political, economic, and social life.

In 1993, Víctor Hugo Cardenas, leader of MRTKL, formed a pre-electoral alliance w/ MNR. The MNR-MRTKL victory made Cardenas the nation's first indigenous vice-president. The 1993-97 MNR-MRTKL government made many katarista reforms, including allowing indigenous communal justice & bilingual education. Since 2000, however, MRTKL has waned as more radical (some would say racist) strands of katarismo emerged.

The so-called "anti-systemic" parties

MIP: Led by Felipe Quispe (aka Mallku), the Movimiento Indígena Pachakuti is the more radical face of the broader katarista movement. Quispe's MIP relies on a staunchly anti-k'ara (white faces) discourse & an appeal to an idealized indigenous peasant past. Quispe, a former guerrilla who also heads the CSUTCB (Confederación Syndical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia), has gained a national reputation for his fervent attacks on traditional parties & k'ara society, as well as for frequent bloqueos around La Paz.

For all its national significance, MIP is an entirely regional party. Although MIP won 5.6% of the national vote in 2002, it was almost entirely limited to the altiplano around Lake Titicaca, where it gained more than 60% of the vote in every district. In the rest of the western Bolivia, MIP took less than 5% of the vote, and not even 1% in the eastern departments.

MAS: Another recent party, Evo Morales' Movimiento Al Socialismo is (despite some of its Trostkyite rhetoric) not really a socialist party. At least not in any ideological sense. Instead, MAS is essentially a party formed to represent the interests of the Chapare cocaleros who oppose US-led coca eradication. Although the party only emerged in the 2002 general elections, the same cocalero dirigentes campaigned in the 1997 elections under the banner of IU (Izquierda Unida).

The vast majority of IU votes in 1997 came from the coca-growing regions of the Chapare & Yungas, and the mining districts of Potosí (where many of the IU candidates had started their political careers as leaders of mining syndicates). Similarly, the votes for MAS in 2002 were centered on the coca growing regions (where it tends to gain 75% of the votes), although it did make some headway into the altiplano (which is more or less split w/ MIP). Evo Morales' second place finish in the 2002 elections was a shock (polls days before the elections gave MAS only 5% of the vote) and is attributed (by most analysts) as an inflated protest vote to the US ambassador's statements that the US wouldn't support a Morales presidency.

Like MIP, MAS paints itself an "indigenous" party, though relying on vaguely Trostkyite, rather than ethnic/racial, rhetoric. It has also consistently attacked the traditional party system. Interestingly, after October's guerra del gas, MAS has turned into what some call a "neosystemic" party, becoming a vocal supporter of electoral democratic institutions.

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