Will the Democratic Center Hold?

Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada speaks with reporters after learning he had been elected, Aug. 4, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Bolivia’s hotly contested presidential election was ultimately decided by Congress in a close and acrimonious vote less than 48 hours before the Aug. 6 inauguration.

The nation’s new government faces enormous pressure to wrest the economy from a three-year recession, crack down on corruption, and narrow the social fissures exposed in the electoral contest.

The most immediate challenge confronting President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada is to restore national unity—“always necessary, but all the more so when it is a matter of facing and defeating one of the worst economic crises in contemporary history,” Los Tiempos (independent, Aug. 7) observed.

Sánchez de Lozada’s ambitious agenda to wage a sweeping anti-corruption campaign and launch a massive public-works program to jump-start the dormant economy “cannot be carried out successfully without the active participation of all Bolivians and the political organizations that received significant popular support in the last elections,” Los Tiempos noted.

Prospects for achieving a broad political consensus on an economic recovery program appeared doubtful, however, following the confrontational pledge by Evo Morales to “govern with the people” as leader of the enlarged leftist opposition bloc in Congress. Morales, the coca-farmer union activist and Movement to Socialism candidate, ran a close second to Sánchez de Lozada in the election.

An editorial in Opinión (independent, Aug. 6) urged that the nation’s new leaders address the marginalization and impoverishment of indigenous and rural Bolivians, who form the core of Morales’ popular base. “Bolivia will never be totally independent and sovereign if the majority of its population is malnourished, ignorant, and poor,” Opinión affirmed.

El Diario (conservative, Aug. 5) noted that the opposition’s strengthened representation in Congress will afford “sufficient power to exercise strict oversight of the actions of the new regime.” Despite the acrimony that marred the marathon 26-hour congressional session culminating in Sánchez de Lozada’s election, El Diario said, “We are convinced that the new legislators will work for the same objective, which is none other than economic recovery and jobs for thousands of Bolivians.”

Along with the unprecedented mobilization of indigenous and agrarian voters behind the Morales candidacy, La Razón (conservative, Aug. 5) observed, the elections also exposed “clear symptoms of exhaustion” in Bolivia’s political system.

Moreover, the editorial added, “The lack of effective mechanisms to attend to [popular] demands, generalized corruption, inefficiency...and submission to foreign policies have legitimized direct action,” fueling polarization and confrontation....

“Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and [Vice President] Carlos Mesa Gisbert have in their hands the fate of democracy and the rule of law,” the La Razón editorial said.