The Inescapability of Structure: Political Parties in Bolivia and Uganda

1 Mar

Over the course of the two weeks, Bolivia and Uganda both held elections. In Uganda, it was a presidential election, and in Bolivia, it was a presidential election thinly disguised as a constitutional referendum. In Uganda, the result was unsurprising. Yoweri Museveni won his fifth consecutive term as President of Uganda after a campaign of naked repression of his challengers, particularly Kizza Besigye. Bolivia, however, sprung a bit of a surprise. President Evo Morales asked voters to decide on whether Presidents could run for a third term (but in Morales’ case, it would actually be his fourth due to some creative legal interpretations). Morales has been the hegemonic force in Bolivian politics for most of the last decade, but following a scandal-filled campaign that included allegations that his mistress’ company received a multi-million dollar contract from the Bolivian government, the referendum narrowly failed. Though this means Evo will be unable to run again, his defeat reveals the utter lack of other leaders within MAS, which at the moment, is the only party capable of winning a presidential election.

How did Bolivia and Uganda arrive at this moment? Specifically, how did two political movements with leftist and officially pluralist missions come to be dominated so completely by two men? There are certainly differences between the experience of the National Resistance Movement (NRM; Uganda) and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS; Bolivia) and the political history of the two countries, but a major stepping stone to the accumulation of power around a single leader can be found in the party structures set up by the NRM and MAS. Both parties were dealing with histories of what they saw as the failure of political parties, so both endeavored to form a new form of political organization. However, their visions of new political possibilities were deeply flawed in practice, and combined with leftist ideologies that did not privilege structured dissent, the result was a largely authoritarian political system in Uganda and a largely authoritarian dominant political party in Bolivia.

The NRM came to power in 1986 following a sustained guerrilla campaign. The NRM’s ideology was heavily influenced by Marxism and its subsequent interpretations, and consequently was skeptical of a multi-party democratic system. According to Aili Tripp, “The NRM blamed parties for fostering sectarianism and perpetuating the ills of the preceding regimes; it wanted to create a political system that would undermine the power base of the older parties.” Additionally, it saw Uganda as constituting a single class of peasants, and therefore since the interests of the majority of the country were presumed to be aligned, there was no need for parties. Candidates ran for office without a party affiliation until 2005, but because the NRM continued to exist, and operate as a party in all but name, opposition candidates were unable to compete without comparable financial and organizational resources at their disposal. In short, the no-party system ensured that opposing political forces would remain disorganized, as any attempt to unify would have been illegal. By the time a party system was finally legally inaugurated, the NRM had become hegemonic. Additionally, over time, Museveni’s regime resorted to increasing levels of repression, funded by Western countries interested in the army’s counterterrorism potential, to maintain power.

Bolivia’s situation bares some similarities to Uganda, but also happened in a different political context. Despite a litany of coups throughout its histories, there was a tradition of democracy in Bolivia. Therefore, when indigenous groups, who had largely been excluded from the political process, gathered in the 1995 to create a united front, they intended to seize power through the ballot box. However, the leaders of the groups that formed MAS were deeply skeptical of political parties, and therefore pledged to form a “political instrument”. MAS, the political instrument, would run candidates for office, but not have a party structure, and the indigenous organizations that comprised MAS would retain their independence.

Ten years later, somewhat incredibly, MAS leader Evo Morales was elected to the Presidency as the first fully-indigenous president not just in Bolivia, but in all of Latin America. While this was a major victory for MAS, but soon came to look very different than most of its founders had intended. There had long been a split within MAS between groups that were organized as unions and groups that were based around allyus, an older form of indigenous social organization. Morales and his allies came from the union tradition, and because there was no structure to distribute power, he was able to slowly disassociate MAS from allyu-based groups and other dissidents. This process was accelerated in 2008, following a failed secession by the Santa Cruz province that discredited much of the country’s political opposition. Without a credible threat from the right, Morales had little reason to retain alliances with those that had a different vision of governance. Today, MAS is a party in name only. Power is concentrated in Morales and his small circle of advisors. Personal relationships with the President are far more important than official titles.

In both Uganda and Bolivia, the absence of political structure mostly did not create the forceful implementation of radical policy, as the founders of the NRM and MAS initially hoped, but the marginalization of many political opponents (though Bolivia has certainly fared better than Uganda so far). Another explanation for this outcome in Uganda and Bolivia is that Museveni and Morales have planned these developments from the beginning, and have always desired to have near-complete control. This interpretation, however, ignores both the well-developed political intentions the two men had at the beginning of their political lives and the very real issues that created a distrust of parties and party systems. Without a robust structure to institutionalize dissent and competition, it becomes easy, even seemingly prudent, for leaders wishing to create radical change to marginalize those that get in their way. Therefore, the Ugandan and Bolivian cases should throw into question political strategies that prize purity over process, and treat structure as the only barrier to the implementation of a utopian vision. These strategies are bound to both over-claim their representation of a marginalized group, and in doing so, erase the differences between members of that group. When change becomes difficult to implement, unrestrained leaders will generally decide that working with diverse groups is no longer worth the trouble.

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