Polls show Evo’s popularity at low ebb

Posted on | maart 22, 2011 | No Comments

Evo Morales

According to the monthly Ipsos Apoyo poll, President Morales’ popularity fell in February to 32%, less than half what it was at the start of his second term in January 2010, and down from 48% in December 2010. The poll was carried out in the four main cities, interviewing 1,027 people. As might be expected, support in El Alto was higher than elsewhere (51%), followed by La Paz (37%), Cochabamba (26%) and Santa Cruz (20%). Even though the poll is biased towards major urban areas and does not include rural areas – and the silent majority are rarely consulted – the results are clear. What are the reasons for this erosion of support?

The main and immediate cause was the gasolinazo, the attempt by the government substantially to increase petrol and diesel prices in the last week of December 2010. This brought with it increased prices for transport, basic foodstuffs and other goods and services. Morales had promised to govern, but by obeying the people. So in the face of strong popular opposition, the government withdrew the measure (see BIF Special Briefing January 2011).

Prices, however, have failed to return to previous levels, with the consumer price index rising by 1.29% in January and a further 1.66% in February. Whilst the increased pace of inflation (the annual figure for 2010 was 7.18%, up from 0.26% in 2009) can partly be explained by the gasolinazo, other factors, such as seasonal price rises (prior to harvests), the impact of serious drought and flooding, and the flow of subsidised food in contraband to neighbouring countries have played their part. A run on sugar in particular led to queues and shortages.

Added to the effect of the gasolinazo, the government also faces high expectations among those who voted it back into office in December 2009 with 64% of the vote.

During its first term, the government brought some dramatic changes, not least the new constitution and the increase in taxes payable by oil and gas transnationals (partly channelled to fund social policies). At the same time, it faced the challenge of implacable opposition from a majority of the departmental prefects and traditional elites, particularly in the eastern lowlands. This seemed to divide the country in two, culminating in the so-called civic-prefectural coup attempt against the government of August-September 2008. Such tactics helped galvanise support for the government and its reform agenda.

Now, having overcome the right-wing opposition, the government is under pressure to show results in improving people’s basic standard of living. Until the gasolinazo, yearly salary increases and rises in the minimum wage had been larger than for several decades, and had kept ahead of inflation. Currently the government is in discussions with the Central Obrera Boliviana, the union confederation, to increase wages by 10%, to offset last year’s inflation, and to raise the minimum wage by 20%.

The central plank of the government’s economic strategy for the second term is what it calls ‘industrialisation’. This means raising the amount of added-value staying in the country by processing raw materials exports locally. However, as industrialisation elsewhere (e.g. in Europe) has shown, this does not happen overnight. While industrialisation projects are creating benefits, including some jobs, their full impact will take much longer to make themselves felt. People want to see change today, not tomorrow.

Support for the government has been particularly in decline among the middle classes. Some feel that they have been effectively displaced from positions of power and authority since 2006. Others point to what they see as inefficiency and corruption in government. There is also a misplaced view that certain liberties are under attack, (such as freedom of the press). This became apparent in the debates that took place over the new Racism and Discrimination Law which the media saw as threatening its interests. Added to this is the view that the government is using newly-passed corruption legislation to harass political opponents.

Criticism also comes from parts of the left. This tends to centre on the government’s failure to make a complete break with the neoliberal model and break with its focus on primary extractive industries as the basis for economic development. In spite of higher tax revenues and the recovery of Bolivian ownership of oil and gas wells, multinational companies are seen as dictating policy to the government. One of the reasons given for the gasolinazo was precisely that the highly subsidised price of petrol and diesel was providing no incentive to foreign companies to invest in Bolivia. Similarly, the government has not repealed the 21060 decree, which ushered in liberal policies in the late 1980s, except one part that relates to job stability.

The government derives its strength from its relations with social movements, but it has not managed to develop a strong party mechanism, providing for a more organic link. The relationship is one of permanent negotiation and compromise. Though there are leaders of the social movements in government posts and in the Plurinational Assembly, the social movements retain their autonomy of action. This was made abundantly clear by their mobilisation against the gasolinazo.

The government’s standing has clearly taken a knock, but it retains a good deal of popularity, particularly among its rural base. Whether or not its support will continue to fall will depend on how it deals with current protests over wage rates. It will also hinge on whether it manages to get a grip on food prices and inflation, and to convince the social movements that they will play a larger role in decision making in future.

As we closed this issue, Ipsos Apoyo published its figures for March, showing an increase in Morales’ popularity to 38%.

AUTHOR: Bolivia Information Forum
URL: http://www.boliviainfoforum.org.uk/
E-MAIL: enquiries [at] boliviainfoforum.org.uk

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