NEW ZEALAND and Bolivia do not have much in common apart from being relatively small countries in the southern hemisphere, but in recent days projected election results in both countries have offered a vision of hope when we need it most.
Hardly anyone expected the New Zealand electorate to rebuke Jacinda Ardern after her stellar response to the Covid-19 pandemic, whereby her nation’s population of almost five million has come through with only 25 deaths.
There were nonetheless those who fervently hoped that her stature on the global stage — with large numbers of citizens in various countries wishing she were their head of government — would not be fairly reflected in the result of last Saturday’s delayed election in New Zealand.
Yet the nation’s Labour has achieved its best result in five decades, and this is the first time since New Zealand adopted the complicated mixed member proportional electoral system in the mid-1990s that a single party has come anywhere close to obtaining almost 50pc of the popular vote.
There is happy news from New Zealand and Bolivia.
The final tally is yet to be revealed, but that hasn’t prevented Ardern’s more ardent critics from deriding her prospects of rescuing her nation’s pandemic-stricken economy from the doldrums, and pointing out that her promises ahead of her previous term about ending child poverty and ameliorating the shortage of social housing have remained largely unfulfilled.
The criticism is not entirely unwarranted, but it tends to be emphasised by those who tend to dismiss Ardern’s sensitive, compassionate and unequivocal responses to white supremacist terrorism, natural catastrophes and even the pandemic as little more than PR exercises.
She was a novice as party leader when she gained power just three years ago by forming a coalition with the right-of-centre New Zealand First party. The latter did not reach the parliamentary threshold this time, and Labour has enough seats to govern on its own, although a loose alliance with the Greens is considered likely.
That does not mean New Zealand is headed towards turning into some kind of socialist paradise. Ardern is a cautious centrist who comes across as attractive to the left simply by virtue of being a decent human being — a refreshingly plainspoken antidote to the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Duterte, Modi and Imran Khan.
And, one might add, Jeanine Anez, the extremist who became Bolivia’s president following a coup against Evo Morales after his fourth electoral victory last November.
Morales had by then already served three terms as president and transformed Bolivia from an unstable backwater with privatised natural resources that mostly benefited foreign entities into something of a role model for economic success and elevation of indigenous communities into the sociopolitical mainstream.
Bolivia’s GDP more than tripled in those years, poverty dropped by more than 40 per cent and extreme poverty by 60pc. Even neoliberal institutions such as the World Bank acknowledged this success, notwithstanding the Morales government’s rebuke of IMF proposals.
Morales and his Movement for Socialism were among the more successful components of the ‘pink tide’ that washed across Latin America early this century in the wake of Hugo Chavez’s triumph in Venezuela. That tide began to recede after the US focused its attention on its southern ‘backyard’, but the MAS remained in situ. Until he decided to defy the result of a referendum in which he was narrowly defeated and seek a fourth term. By late last year, even former allies in the industrial and agricultural workers’ unions had begun to resent his attitude and some of his policies. To the consternation of his foes, Morales won again.
The US-led and Washington-sponsored Organisation of American States, whose reactionary role in the continent straddles decades, was quick to call out electoral malpractices, provoking an upsurge in protests that enabled the military to ‘suggest’ that Morales must resign.
To that extent, the process followed a pattern that has commonly been witnessed in Latin America, although the implementation has occasionally faltered. It was therefore feared that this year’s twice-postponed elections would be a stage-managed affair.
But one of the few advantages of the haphazard administration in Washington is its chronic inability to focus on such matters, and as far as one can tell the voting in Sunday’s election and the counting thereafter have been above board, with both the incumbent regime and the conservative contender conceding that MAS candidate Luis Arce, a former finance minister under Morales, had clearly scored a triumph.
As in New Zealand, the final tally isn’t as yet available, but the interim result is a hopeful sign that the Bolivian experiment in indigenous empowerment and reducing disparities of wealth can be restored, even if it doesn’t represent a broader turning of the tide.
Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2020