What Worked for MAS That Didn’t Work for the SPLM?: Party structure and its effect on conflict

6 Jan

In their Foreign Affairs essay, Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed outline the reasons for South Sudan’s collapse into bloodshed.  As one of the primary reasons, they note the SPLM never functioned as a real political party.  At first it was an army, and post-independence, it was merely an imaginary organization of assorted political figures.   Reading this, my mind wandered back to the research I did in Bolivia on the political structure of MAS, the country’s governing party.  Like the SPLM, MAS never had aa institutionalized structure.  MAS was founded in the 90’s during a crisis of confidence in Bolivia’s electoral democracy.  The indigenous founders of MAS were wary of traditional politics; not only were they failing Bolivia then, but they had always failed the indigenous  majority.  However, indigenous leaders felt they needed to contend for power in the political arena, and MAS was founded as the coalition’s “political instrument”.  The idea of what a “political instrument” constituted was always vague, but its lack of structure effectively allowed current President Evo Morales to gradually concentrate power around himself and a few allies.

In South Sudan, the partial result of a lack of party structure has been civil war, but in Bolivia, its been largely responsible for creating one of Bolivia’s strongest ever governments.  Why?  I think there are three central advantages that Bolivia has had over South Sudan that explain this divergence: a lack of a history of violent conflict, a more favorable dispersion of political power, and government capacity to provide services.

South Sudan has been one of the world’s most consistently war-ravaged places for the past fifty years.   Not only has the South suffered from catastrophic conflict with the north, but much of the fighting during Sudan’s civil wars occurred between southern groups.  This, along with John Garang’s refusal to develop a permanent, professional SPLA, partially caused South Sudan to become a fractured, militia-ized country.  In South Sudan, there are also just more guns in the hands of more people than there are in Bolivia, meaning it is much easier to escalate a political disagreement to a violent conflict.  Unlike South Sudan, Bolivia has only a minor history of violence between indigenous peoples (who form MAS’ social base) and the white urban elite, and essentially no history of intra-indigenous violent conflict.

Probably the most crucial element in explaining Bolivia and South Sudan’s varying fates is the distribution of political power in each country.  Despite an indigenous majority, Bolivia’s white right had long been a potent political force in the country.  That is, until 2009.  That year, the right spectacularly imploded following a failed secession attempt in the wealthy and conservative Santa Cruz department.  This allowed Evo Morales to dispose of allies he had little in common with but were needed to maintain a majority over right-wing parties.  MAS was always quite centralized, it has never been more so than it is today.  It’s unlikely Evo could have been so successful in eating up power within MAS had it had formal institutions that checked his power.  And though Evo has marginalized large parts of his original coalition, he does have a trump card.  Any opposition indigenous bloc would be unable to seize power itself and would present an opportunity for the right to reemerge.  The right failed indigenous Bolivians so badly for so long that Evo has become the only game in town.  Though Evo’s hegemony is not necessarily positive for every indigenous group, it has created a stable political system.

Unlike in Bolivia, there is no single faction strong enough to unilaterally control the government.  The north has also faded as an adversary to unite against.  Perversely, oil revenue accounts for most of the country’s economy and is controlled entirely by the state.  When combined, the lack of a hegemonic power and the oil revenues form a strong incentive to seize the state.

The final advantage I think Bolivia has had over South Sudan is its capacity to deliver resources to its population and subsequently form a national identity.  Though MAS has not been as successful in transforming the lives of Bolivians as it claims to be, it has done a fairly good job.  Its economic policies have also stoked an economy that avoided the 2009 financial crisis and saw large growth rates.  Therefore, it has been able to deliver real benefits to large, previously neglected swaths of the country.  These successes have helped legitimate its use of indigenous-ness as a unifying national identity.  South Sudan hasn’t been so lucky.  South Sudan’s economy stops and starts as relations with the north vacillate, while Kiir has had to use more than half the national budget to pay off militias.  Even with billions in international assistance, Juba’s ability to actually provide services to its population (like paved roads) has been quite limited.  It’s easy to see then why ethnic patronage networks have proved more powerful in obtaining allegiance than the national government.

In both cases, the lack of a fixed party structure has allowed an opportunity to seize power.  In Bolivia, Evo took that chance and created a sort of hegemonic stability.  In South Sudan, however, the lack of political institutionalization provided numerous incentives for conflict and Machar capitalized.


One Response to “What Worked for MAS That Didn’t Work for the SPLM?: Party structure and its effect on conflict”


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