LA PAZ — As of Sunday, Bolivia is once again divided in two. It had taken President Evo Morales almost a decade to build a consensus around him, a consensus that had enabled him to be re-elected for a third five-year term in 2014 with 61% of the vote. But his failure this week to win a referendum that would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term means he will be governing until 2019 over a country that is once again divided.
Many analysts rushed to say that the slim "No" victory in the referendum on the constitutional change was yet another nail in the coffin of "Bolivarianism." But what we witnessed in Bolivia has more to do with the erosion of Morales' public image and the loss of confidence from his base support: the political left and indigenous movements.
The region's economic slowdown hasn't yet translated into noticeable negative effects in daily life, with Bolivia's GDP growing at an average of 5% over the past decade, leading to a fall in poverty and unemployment.
And yet, there's no indication that the majority of support for the "No" comes from a demand of change in economic policy or desire to reduce the government's role.
Morales' real difficulty is that he doesn't know how to deal with the negative consequences of the absence of change in power. Corruption is to blame. It's spreading in strategic government sectors, among them the Indigenous Fund foundation, accused of paying funds for construction projects, only 20% of which have actually materialized.
The most recent example is one that affected the 56-year-old President directly. Morales has been accused of having favored an ex-girlfriend, who also happens to be a senior executive at a Chinese company that was awarded $500 million worth of construction contracts.
The female question
Whereas the opposition was fragmented in the 2014 election, last Sunday's referendum made it possible for all those dissatisfied with Morales to make common cause. But it would be wrong to assume that this makes them a monolithic alternative to govern.
Instead, the "No" side brought together part of the entrepreneurship worried about the announced crisis and parts of an urban left that demands equal rights for all men and women before the law. They were joined by indigenous dissidents and part of the white elite who never accepted the idea of having someone from the Aymara people as the nation's leader. Encouraged by a wave of good polling results, Morales has also showed a more authoritative side lately, which has alienated some of his supporters, especially those most politically progressive.
At a press conference on Monday, the day after the referendum, a female journalist asked Morales what he'd do if he left the government. He replied that he was prepared to go back to his home region, Chaco, and offered her to be his cook. This sort of macho "joke" is by no means new, and feminist leaders see this type of behavior reflected in the lack of measures to promote a more egalitarian society, combat domestic violence (Bolivia is the leading Latin American country in that respect) and to open up the debate on abortion in Congress.
The question now is how these political forces will behave in this new scenario, with Morales now set to leave office in 2019. Having secured the support of 48.6% of the population for what would have been an unprecedented grab at power, his popularity remains high, even if attention will shift toward looking for his potential successor.
The greatest challenge continues to lie with the opposition, which has failed in the last three elections to unite together behind one candidate. Perhaps their success in defeating the referendum will remind them of the importance of unity and compromise.