The last time Carlos Mesa was president of Bolivia, crippling nationwide protests forced him out after just 19 months, leaving a country on the brink of civil war. Fifteen years later, the bookish centrist says things will be different if he wins Sunday’s presidential election.

“If I am elected, I will be elected for five years,” he told the Financial Times in an interview. “I have no reason to think I will decide to only use two.”

Bolivia’s powerful socialist former president Evo Morales has other ideas.

From exile in Argentina, where he fled after mass protests over allegations of election fraud forced him from power last year, Mr Morales is pushing the candidacy of his former finance minister, Luis Alberto “Lucho” Arce in the strongest possible terms.

“Through the decision of the Bolivian people and through the mandate of the constitution, Lucho — and only Lucho — will be president of Bolivia,” Mr Morales said in a recent Facebook broadcast. 

Polls show Mr Arce and Mr Mesa well out in front of the four other candidates. Most surveys put Mr Arce in the lead, although short of the 10-point margin of victory required to avoid a second round in late November. In a run-off, polls indicate Mr Mesa would beat Mr Arce convincingly, allowing him to be sworn in just after Christmas.

Bolivian presidential candidates debate on October 4 © David Mercado/Reuters
Carlos Mesa supporters © Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty

Whether this scenario unfolds peacefully in a deeply divided country with a reputation as one of the hardest in Latin America to govern is a moot point. Observers from the OAS and the EU will oversee the vote, which also includes elections for a new parliament. Whether Mr Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party — which still characterises the mass protests that swept Mr Morales from power as a “racist coup d’état” — would accept defeat is unclear.

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The pre-election atmosphere is increasingly tense. Former MAS minister and party spokeswoman Marianela Paco on Monday claimed a “second coup is under way” to prevent her party’s return to power. Interim president Jeanine Añez’s administration has drawn fire for fanning the political flames with confrontational rhetoric, rather than staying neutral.

Mr Mesa has spent much of his career as a historian, journalist and broadcaster. He has rejected left-right party labels and said he is passionate about the need for reconciliation, although his desire to extend olive branches does not include Mr Morales.

“If Evo Morales comes back, he has to come back to be investigated,” Mr Mesa told the FT. “Not investigated in the way he used to do it: he, as the Bolivian president, being the accuser, the judge, the legislator and the one who passed sentence . . . a lot of things have happened here in 14 years of corruption and waste, which need to be investigated.”

His anger is tinged with regret at an opportunity squandered. “He should have been the [Nelson] Mandela of Bolivia,” said Mr Mesa of Mr Morales, who rose from poverty as a llama herder to be the country’s longest-serving ruler. “But he wasn’t. He was the exact opposite. Morales was an autocrat”.

If Mr Mesa wins, he will inherit a country under economic strain even before coronavirus. Having benefited from a commodities boom for much of his tenure, Mr Morales relied heavily on bank reserves to fund his government in his final years in office and the fiscal deficit reached 7 per cent in 2019.

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Bolivia’s burden of external debt is light, at about 26 per cent of GDP, and the IMF describes it as “sustainable over the medium term”. But the country was hard hit by coronavirus and the World Bank forecasts GDP will contract 7.3 per cent this year.

Mr Mesa wants to renegotiate Bolivia’s foreign debt “not as a populist measure . . . not stopping paying” but instead by restructuring interest rates and payment schedules. He is also seeking some $6bn of new external funding from multilateral lenders and international markets, and if necessary, via bilateral agreements.

A 67-year-old with a passion for cinema and football, Mr Mesa said he has learnt lessons from his troubled previous presidency. This was in 2003 when pro-US president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada fled the country after his plans to export natural gas via historic enemy Chile triggered violent protests.

Mr Mesa, then vice-president, took over but resigned in 2005 amid mass demonstrations demanding the nationalisation of gas reserves and a new constitution. This paved the way for Mr Morales’ ascent to power months later.

Mr Mesa’s main conclusion was that he should have built his own political movement. “You can’t govern a country if you don’t have political backing, a coherent political organisation,” he said. His other conclusion is economic: no more contentious nationalisations or privatisations, instead focusing on creating the right conditions to encourage investment.

Jim Shultz, a longtime Bolivia expert and executive director of the Democracy Center, said Mr Mesa would face an uphill struggle as president if he cannot get the MAS to accept life as an opposition party, rather than a mass protest movement.

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“Mesa doesn’t need the MAS as a governing party, but he does need their consent to govern,” he said. “It’s remarkably easy to make Bolivia ungovernable. You can shut off the national economy just by blocking two major roads.” 

Via Financial Times