12/06/2009 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Ballot of Bolivian Identity: Today's Presidential Election

In the US, presidential elections shift trillions of dollars and move armies across the globe. In Bolivia, the stakes are even higher.

Hoy, el 6 de Deciembre, nearly every citizen in the country - voting is obligatory here - will go to the polls for an election whose outcome is certain: a victory for the incumbent indigenous president, Evo Morales. And yet political energy has been vibrating plazas, radio stations and kitchens nonetheless. Because Bolivians are casting their ballots not to identify a new president but to take advantage of an even rarer opportunity: a chance to define themselves.

The 2001 Bolivian Census Survey on Race identified 12% of the population as white, 30% as mestizo (mixed) and the remaining 58% as indigenous. But such demographic studies of the population are more exercises in definition than data gathering; race is an inherently fluid notion in a country with 36 recognized ethnic groups and a 400+ year history of racial mixing and integration. In a country where the racial lines are so blurred, both "whiteness" and indigenity (to coin a term) are highly economically and culturally determined. And, as a result, somewhat self-defined.

That's not to say there are not racial lines and racism. In fact, racism is itself a class marker, a way for the largely white and mestizo middle and upper social echelons to distinguish themselves from the largely indigenous lower class. But it is the fluidity of these lines itself - and their intimate relation to fluctuations in economic status -- that generate much of the racism. Rapid development, urbanization, internal migration and rising levels of economic integration are undermining the previously rigid social hierarchies. As native individuals more and more integrate in to urban life, for example, they enter the middle class economy and the accompanying culture, making it increasingly difficult for parties on both sides of the divide to make clear caste determinations. And few things encourage class and racial animosity like class and racial insecurity. As one remarkably candid young university estudiante put it to me, "the problem is that when indigenous students start dressing and talking like us, it gets really hard to tell them apart."

Some lines remain more clearly defined. City folk of all classes refer despairingly to los campesinos, a term that encompasses all non-white rural peoples, including farmers, miners and cocaleros as well as the street vendors and laborers who commute daily in to urban areas. To be campesino is to be other than urban; it implies an under-defined mix of labor, provincialism, dress and language. This divide retains power because of the ability to demarcate by geography. But even here, things are changing; massive shifts of campesino populations from the countryside to cities over the last 15 years have created both new forms of urban live and an entire new class of indigenous urbanites, who increasingly refer to themselves as indigenas or pueblos originarios. El Alto, an 800,000-person "suburb" of La Paz, is an example of these new spatial-social forms.

The urbanization of the indigenous population further accelerated the process of social change, as the new pueblos originarios and traditional campesinos together formed a powerful base from which to build social movements. It was anti-globalization and anti-government protests in Cochabamba and El Alto in the early 2000's - protests led largely by these classes -- that marked a turning point in a struggle dating back to the Spanish conquests of the 16th century. These movements, taking shape through the Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS) party, finally seized political power with Morales's victory in 2004. But while the struggle and victory are in many way defined by race - it was, of course, the indigenous people who were historically most oppressed by the ruling elites - the picture is more complicated; only 60% of the rural population identifies as indigenous (see Bolivian 2001 census).

With such confusing and rapidly shifting class, race and cultural lines, opportunities to draw sharp distinctions and clearly define oneself are few and far between. Which is why today's election has become such a powerful symbolic moment for the country. Voting in this election is an act of self-definition, of social, class and racial alignment; in my many conversations with Cochabambinos about the elections, there were but a handful of references to actual policies - candidates' platforms simply didn't figure in to the equation. And though there are more than a half dozen politicians in the race, there are only two ways to vote: for MAS, or against it. To vote for MAS is to place oneself on the side of the oppressed of society - the poor, the rural, the indigenous. And to vote against MAS is to take a stand against the rapid social changes wracking the country - to mark oneself as a supporter of the old order.

Table 1: Indigenous/Non-Indigenous Pledged Support for Evo Morales. From: Gallup International Poll

Non-Indigenous Support
President: 47.0%
Opposition: 44.9%
NS/NR: 8.1%

Indigenous Support
President: 87.4%
Opposition: 12.5%
NS/NR: 0.1%

Table 2: Support for Evo Morales by socio-economic class. From: Gallup International Poll

President: 24.1%
Opposition: 66.4%
NS/NR: 9.5%

President: 40%
Opposition: 53.5%
NS/NR: 5.5%

President: 61.9%
Opposition: 32.3%
NS/NR: 5.8%

The symbolic nature of the election is reinforced by the fact that the government's most significant reforms have been aimed at revising state identity. Morales has certainly pushed the country to the left economically -- nationalizing hydrocarbon resources, reinvigorating the state run oil company (YBFB) and mining company and increasing social spending through direct welfare payments. But while MAS proclaims some affinity with communist ideology, there has been no effort to undercut private property, nor is there any political appetite for such a move. In fact, the administration's form of state capitalism has generated significant private development - Bolivia had the highest rate of growth of any South American country last year. Rather than driving towards socialism, MAS is being driven by social movements, movements that are clamoring for political and social recognition. Morales orchestrated a constitutional convention two years ago, resulting in a document that declared Bolivia a "plurinational state" and gave full recognition to all 36 indigenous groups. No one - literally, no one, including Sergio Castro, a constitutional law professor and one of the constitutional framers with whom I discussed the issue at length - knows what this means in practical terms. And that is, of course, because it is not - at least primarily -- a practical matter.

Meanwhile, Evo's rejection of US influence in the country - he expelled the American diplomat over a year ago - is not insignificant, but nor do the United States and Bolivia truly affect each other in meaningful economic or foreign policy terms. The move was far more rhetorical in nature, indicating Bolivian's new independence from the colonial-powers-that-be and providing the public consciousness with space for the country to define itself. As one pure-bred Marxist at the public university described it to me, Bolivia has to "decolonize" from the imperialist powers. [Though as I pointed out in a previous post on corporate influence, it's not clear how much decolonization is happening].

To decolonize or to embrace American and European civilization. A plurinational country or a national one. Indigenous or white or somewhere in-between. These are questions of cultural and state identity which will be answered through a complex process of civic debate, social change and political conflict. It is a society-wide discussion, one that will play out in households, stores and statehouses each day for decades to come. But today is a day to stay still -- campaigning ended on Friday, alcohol is banned for the weekend and the streets are shut to traffic till Monday morning - and to fix one's identity with a pencil, a check mark and a vote for one's self.