Bolivian President Evo Morales comfortably won the country’s last three presidential elections. But as he runs for his fourth term, this time may be different. For Morales—in power since 2006—the worst-case scenario would be to lose in the election’s first round on October 20, against main opposition candidate Carlos Mesa.
Evo’s path toward a fourth presidential term has not been simple. First he presented his case for re-election in a referendum—the proposal to modify the Constitution was rejected by 51.3 percent of voters. Unsatisfied with the outcome, Morales resorted to the Constitutional Court, which invoked Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights, the article that guarantees the full right of citizens to be able to stand for elections, claiming that the provision allowed him to run again.
With Morales’ candidacy approved by the court, the debate has shifted to whether or not the referendum indicated a change in Bolivian public opinion and if Morales’ maneuver to ignore the result of the referendum will cost him the election. The wear and tear of being in power for fourteen years—accompanied by numerous reports of corruption and overspending, combined with the deterioration in the quality of some public services—has also put into question his standing. Coinciding with the electoral season, Morales’ late reaction to the fires in the Chiquitania region—which have already razed two million hectares—don’t help his cause.
In any case, Morales still has some good cards up his sleeve, the most important being the country’s economic stability and the social improvements since he assumed power. To Morales’ advantage, Argentina’s negative experience with switching economic models looks less appealing and raises fears that something similar could happen in Bolivia. “Futuro Seguro” (translated as safe future), the motto that Morales’s Movement to Socialism (MAS) party has embraced, plays on these fears.
But will this be enough to win the first round? Surveys point in all directions, but tend to agree on one thing: if the election goes to a second round, Evo Morales would lose against Carlos Mesa. To avoid that, Morales would have to win 50 percent plus one of valid votes in the first round or attain 40 percent of votes with an advantage of 10 points over the second runner up—something he has been able to achieve in past elections.
Morales’ main opponent, Carlos Mesa, is not new to politics. He was president from 2003 to 2005 and is currently running under the “Comunidad Ciudadana” coalition. One issue that favors Morales, however, is that while Mesa is the opposition candidate with the best chances to win the presidency, he is not the only one running against Morales. According to polls, the third runner up is Oscar Ortiz standing for the “Bolivia Dice No” (Bolivia says no) coalition, and in fourth place is Chi Hyung Chung for the Christian Democratic Party. The latter is an evangelical pastor who has had a surprising rise in recent polls, despite misogynistic statements and rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community and indigenous peoples.
While the ruling party remains the country’s favorite, there looms a degree of uncertainty unlike ever before. Evo Morales must play out every card if he wants to win the presidency in the first round.