Summary: The governing MAS party has greatly expanded its legal influence at the regional and local level since surviving the political crisis of 2008. It extended its reach even beyond its electoral successes of April 2010 by way of savvy parliamentary maneuvers and by pushing aside opponents under indictment. However, in localities like Sucre and Quillacollo, it has been unable to convert interim office-holding into a new electoral majority. Instead, 2011 saw increased frustration with the national party from within parts of its left grassroots base. At the Departmental level, the MAS has put representatives or allies into the governor’s chair, but indigenous delegates have acted independently to lead Legislative Assemblies in two departments.

much more after the jump

April 2010, Elections: About one month into my fieldwork, Bolivia held regional elections that distributed departmental and local offices across the country. The vote brought a sweeping victory for the Movement towards Socialism party of Evo Morales, going beyond even the electoral successes of 2008 and 2009 in national ballots. From 2006 to 2009, a key term in Bolivian politics was the media luna (crescent moon) made up of four eastern departments: Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija, whose right-wing governors formed the core of opposition to the Morales government. In April 2010, however, the media luna began to crack apart: the governor of Pando was edged out by MAS candidate Luis Adolfo Flores, and the grassroots left party also won numerous legislative and local offices in the eastern lowlands. Nationwide, the MAS its share of departmental leaders, going from three elected prefects in 2004 to six out of the nine governors in 2010.

The MAS also won the Mayor’s office in 231 of 337 municipalities, and independent left parties like the Without Fear Movement (21), Movement for Sovereignty (6), and Social Alliance (1, Potosí) added to that total. At the same time, right-wing power held in eastern cities (except Pando’s capital Cobija) as well as Sucre, and the limits of MAS party-building were shown in losses to independent forces in the cities of La Paz, Oruro and Potosí.

The rest of 2010, savvy politicking: MAS strategists also proved adept at alliance building and using the administrative process of suspending indicted officials to gain control in even more departmental and local governments.

A new institution debuted in the April 2010 elections: the Departmental Legislative Assembly. A product of the 2009, constitution, the Assembly democratizes regional governance while giving a greater voice to peasants (who benefit from the by-province allocation of some seats) and minority indigenous peoples (who directly elect nonpartisan representatives using traditional procedures). The MAS won majority control of five of these assemblies at the ballot box, but was able to generate alliances to preside over eight by their May 2010 inauguration. Among the departmental assemblies, only Santa Cruz remained without MAS leadership.

At the municipal level, the MAS was able to work a similar magic in some places. The most dramatic and notable was in Sucre, a place where the MAS was forced to campaign clandestinely just three years before. Despite holding just four seats out of eleven on Sucre’s municipal council, the MAS joined with the center-right New Citizen’s Alternative and recruited centrist Domingo Martínez to lead the council. This majority block then received the indictment of Mayor Jaime Barrón and replaced him with young MAS council member Veronica Berríos. A stronghold of the Bolivian right thus came under MAS rule just two months after the party lost at the polls.

2011, Turbulence: Despite the absence of regular elections, there still have been many changes in municipal officeholders. When prompted by a formal indictment (often for corruption), city councils are obliged to suspend mayors from office. MAS government officials have defended the removal-through-prosecution pattern, both as a matter of legality and as part of a “zero corruption” policy. Vice Minister of Justice Nelson Cox insists that prosecutions have not been political, but rather grounded in the substantiated accusations: “Esto no es una persecución política, cualquier denuncia lo utilizan para decir que es persecución política. Hay hechos de corrupción que han merecido una imputación” (“¿Corrupción ‘cero’ o persecución política?” Los Tiempos, December 31, 2011.) Vice President Álvaro García Linera has also emphasized that the governing party has the most to lose, since it now holds the more mayoral offices than any other party.

In Bolivia’s highly mobilized and turbulent political climate, mayors have been pushed out not just by a formal indictment, but also by social pressure from their constituents. Such mobilizations led at least 9 mayors to step down themselves or be replaced by city councils as between April 2010 and December 2011. However, in two major cases, the national government has appealed to the courts to defend its own mayors from removal by their councils. The cities involved were Sucre, where interim mayor Veronica Berríos was pushed aside for peasant leader and councilman José Santos Romero in January 2011, and Yapacaní, Santa Cruz, where the council suspended David Carvajal for the second time in December 2011. Both of these cases involved local MAS council members backing popular pressure for MAS mayors to resign. In effect, the national MAS is standing by its embattled mayors and against its own base. In terms of procedure, the national MAS is rejecting mass mobilization to topple leaders in favor of revocation referendums, which are only possible halfway through a five-year term.

In Sucre, the Guarantees Tribunal of Chuquisaca’s Superior Court of Justice restored Berríos to the post of Interim Mayor after just 17 days. However, local officials remained frustrated with the national party (as represented by Minister Wilfredo Chávez). Neither MAS nor Berríos was able to mount the kind of dramatically successful administration that could win over moderate voters for the MAS in time for December elections. When two parties in the city’s highly fractious right-wing formed an alliance last month, they won a solid plurality and ended the MAS’ hold on the Mayor’s chair.

The past week’s events in Yapacaní reprised this story, but with a tragic and fatal ending. National officials again stood by the controversial suspended mayor, David Carvajal. Again, their defense was successful in court, but resented at the grassroots level. And three protesters ended up dead. The national government’s handling of the situation illustrates the dangers of excessive partisanship and will surely call into question its commitment to a “zero corruption” standard for local officials.

Departmental Government Swings: Some similar dramas have played out at the departmental level. Two opposition governors were formally indicted since the 2010 elections: Mario Cossio of Tarija and Ernesto Suarez Sattori of Beni. (Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz is facing multiple investigations as well.) Cossio fled the country after being indicted and suspended by the Departmental Legislative Assembly in December 2010. Cossío was succeeded by a MAS politician, Lino Condori. More recently, MAS departmental legislators backed MNR member Haisen Ribera as interim governor to replace Ernesto Suarez.

While veteran opponents of the MAS have fallen from governor’s posts, indigenous legislators have moved into leadership of departmental assemblies by distancing themselves from the MAS. This distance, was of course heightened by the MAS–lowland indigenous split around the pro-TIPNIS national indigenous march, but began in the months before it. In Tarija, Guaraní legislator Justino Zambrana Cachari took over the presidency of the Departmental Legislative Assembly in June 2011. In Santa Cruz’s departmental legislature a mid-2011 power struggle over seating the fifth indigenous legislator was strongly backed by the MAS, only to backfire against them. The MAS won a restraining order  against the President of the Assembly requiring the seating of Rosemery Gutiérrez of the “Yuracare-Moxeño” people (two separate indigenous groups that elect a representative together). However, once seated, the five indigenous delegates negotiated the backing of the right-wing parties in the Assembly to elect Chuquitano assemblyman Rodolfo López as its president; the MAS boycotted his election.  If in 2010, the MAS could cannily seek unnatural allies to govern, it now seems that lowland indigenous parliamentarians are now willing to play the same game.