The Miami Herald
Mon, Dec. 06, 2004

U.S. foe Bolivia's biggest party

In electing mayors throughout the country, Bolivians rejected traditional political parties and favored a foe of the United States.


LA PAZ, Bolivia - Bolivians overwhelmingly rejected their traditional political parties in electing 327 mayors Sunday, with the Movement Toward Socialism, led by an implacable foe of globalization and of the United States, emerging as the country's biggest political party.

But Evo Morales, an Indian who heads Movement Toward Socialism, will have a difficult time claiming victory because MAS, as it is known in Spanish, won about 20 percent of the vote nationwide and did not win any of the country's eight biggest cities.

The big winners were such newly created independent parties as the Fearless Movement, headed by La Paz Mayor Juan del Granado, who cruised to reelection.

José Luís Paredes, who heads another independent political party, easily won reelection in El Alto, a city of 800,000 on the flat land overlooking La Paz.

''Our democracy has entered a profound crisis thanks to the traditional parties,'' del Granado said in an interview just after voting. ``They have governed us over the past 20 years, and life is no better.''


Alvaro García, a sociologist, said the traditional parties, which go by their Spanish initials -- MNR, NFR, MIR and ADN -- won no more than 10 percent of the vote combined Sunday, compared to 60 percent in the 2002 presidential election.

''They have suffered a catastrophic fall,'' Garcia said, blaming this on corruption and their support of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who was forced to resign in October 2003 and go into exile after government troops killed 70 people.

They were among the thousands of Bolivians protesting Sánchez de Lozada's plan to export a portion of the country's huge natural gas reserves to Chile, Bolivia's hated southern neighbor.

The street uprising that toppled Sánchez de Lozada ushered Vice President Carlos Mesa into power. Since then, Mesa has attempted to steer a middle ground in a country racked by ethnic division -- the Indian majority is demanding a greater voice -- and geographical division: Santa Cruz in the east favors free trade policies while La Paz and El Alto residents in the west believe that foreign companies exploit the country's natural resources.

Mesa, an independent and political novice, had no particular stake in Sunday's elections other than maintaining the country's fragile democracy.


Morales became a political heavyweight when he surprised analysts by winning 21 percent of the vote in the 2002 presidential election, two points behind Sánchez de Lozada, who then won the presidency through a vote by Congress.

Morales became a foe of the United States for vigorously defending coca farmers in the Chapare region in central Bolivia.

Morales has allied himself with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, but he has also showed a pragmatic side by helping prop up the Mesa government, even as the traditional political parties hope Mesa will be forced to resign and call early elections.

With a strong base in rural towns, MAS was expected to win about half of the mayor's races, but the rural results weren't fully available late Sunday night.