A Rift Has Opened in Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism

The conflict between Evo Morales and Luis Arce for the Bolivian presidency in 2025 has not only split the ruling MAS party but also the social movements and labor unions that form its base.

Social organizations attend the political rally to show their support for the president of Bolivia, Luis Arce, in El Alto, Bolivia, on October 17, 2023. (Mateo Romay Salinas / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Alongside the boisterous street parties of Carnival, traditional ch’alla ceremonies took place in late February across Bolivia. Incense was burned and blessings of coca leaves and alcohol were offered to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, in rituals affirming bonds of reciprocity between people and Pachamama.

But in addition to the unwelcome, festive chaki (hangover), a deepening political and social rift is adding to the headache of the left and progressive movements in Bolivia.

Since the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) returned to power under Luis Arce in 2020, ex-president Evo Morales has been honing his support base with the hope of returning as president. But in December last year, Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Court ruled that presidents can only hold power for a maximum of two terms and that indefinite reelection “is not a human right.” The ruling dealt a catastrophic blow to the presidential ambitions of the thrice-elected Morales.

Morales has since accused Arce, his former economy minister and close ally, of orchestrating an attempt to outlaw him from holding office, declaring on X, formerly Twitter, that a “judicial coup” is underway.

Electoral Wrangling

To force elections for a new judiciary, which should have been held in December in accordance with the plurinational constitution, in late January Morales mobilized his base in the coca-growing heartland of Cochabamba to form bloqueos, or roadblocks, along the roads connecting Cochabamba with the business hub of Santa Cruz.  The blockades, combining demands for judicial elections with other local grievances, have caused food and fuel shortages and have been suppressed by security forces.

Huáscar Salazar, an economist and a member of the Centro de Estudios Populares in Bolivia says there is little hope of conciliation between the two camps. “What we are experiencing at this moment is that arm-twist, in which Evo and Arce dispute the acronym of the Movement Toward Socialism and, especially, the candidacy for the presidency of that party for 2025.”

He adds, “The problem is that this arm-twist is having tremendous consequences for grassroots organizations, which have been increasingly divided in their internal structures; but also because this dispute occurs in the midst of an increasingly palpable economic crisis, of which no one wants to take charge.”

The dramatic increase in blockades this month as well as their geographic distribution can be seen in the infographics produced by Mauricio Fonda, an open data activist living in Bolivia.

In the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, MAS elected officials are split between arcista and evista lines.  Elections for the judiciary were supposed to be held last year but have stalled due to disagreement over the preselected candidates agreed on by the legislative assembly, which is dominated by the MAS.  In Bolivia, judges on the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the Agro-Environmental Court, and the Judicial Council are elected through direct elections every six years.

The arcistas gain from the status quo because the current makeup of the Plurinational Constitutional Court has favored their interests, such as in the recent ruling over Morales’s selection. And Arce’s status as an incumbent gives him far more leverage over state institutions, which he has used to his advantage.

The re-selection of Morales has been an unsettled question since 2017 and lay at the heart of the coup of 2019. The Constitution prohibits anyone from serving as president for more than two consecutive terms. In 2016, Morales narrowly lost a referendum, which would have overturned the Constitution and allowed him to run again.  He took the decision to the Plurinational Constitutional Court, which was packed with his supporters. It ruled that reelection was a human right and effectively overturned the referendum.

Many Bolivians viewed this as an antidemocratic legal charade, and it was a major factor in mobilizing the urban middle classes and disaffected social movements against Morales in October 2019, when a coup enabled the evangelical far-right Jeanine Áñez to seize the presidency.

After being chosen by Morales, Arce was elected president in October 2020 after elections were finally held a year after the coup. The conflict between arcistas and evistas centers on the control of the MAS itself, which over the past two decades has been consolidated as a durable ruling party.

Social Antagonisms and the MAS

The recent bloqueos are an indicator that Morales can still mobilize a broad, motivated base. Bloqueos have a long and effective history in Bolivia and are a feature of most social conflicts. In 1999, during the Cochabamba Water Wars, a coalition of peasants, factory workers, and community activists united to barricade the roads in response to a new neoliberal law that would have privatized water. Similarly, after a violent coup in 1980 by Luis García Meza, peasants blocked the roads to prevent the military from moving through the countryside, incurring serious repression. More recently, in 2020, miners and peasant movements blocked the roads outside of the cities to force Áñez to hold elections after almost a year of coup government characterized by graft, corruption, and massacres.

The blockades arise from one faction in the MAS. It is important to note that the MAS is less of an orthodox political party, and more of a shifting coalition of differing and sometimes antagonistic social forces at the base. Bolivia’s refounding as a “plurinational” state in 2009 has been seen as a reflection of its pluralistic social elements, a remedy for what the Bolivian Marxist intellectual René Zavaleta Mercado termed a “sociedad abigarrada” (motley, disjointed society), comprising different modes of production, historical temporalities, and forms of government within the confines of a (colonial) nation-state.

But over the past decade, divisions in the MAS have played out destructively in the movements of cooperative miners, coca growers, peasants, and urban workers, which are split internally, now often having parallel leaderships.

A Looming Economic Crisis

One of these is the powerful peasant union confederation, the Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), which is split down the middle in its allegiances. Those affiliated with Morales, such as the current leader Ponciano Santos, have pledged to resume blockades if their demands for judicial elections are not met. Santos was elected last year amid the CSUTCB’s national congress, which ended in brawls and chair-flinging between evistas and arcistas, and many elements in the confederation do not recognize his authority.

Last year, during the MAS congress, Arce and his vice president, David Choquehuanca, were expelled from the party.

Adding to Arce’s political woes, Bolivia’s economic picture looks gloomy. Beginning last year there has been an acute shortage of dollars and the boliviano currency has been devalued. As economist Stasiek Czaplicki Cabezas points out, the devaluation represents a 20 percent drop in the value of savings held in the local currency, posing a future of financial insecurity for many Bolivians, particularly the middle classes. All of this adds pressure for Arce, the Warwick University–trained economist who has been forced to defend his economic credentials.

Presidential candidates for the elections in 2025 must be decided this year so there is intensifying pressure from each side to comprehensively steer the MAS apparatus. But the protracted conflict is spreading toxicity through Bolivia’s social movements which are bitterly divided at the base. Meanwhile, wrangling over judicial elections erodes wider public faith in the democratic organs of the state, denting the legitimacy of whichever side will eventually claim victory. In 2024, Bolivian politics is more polarized than ever.