After a long period of relative quiescence, indigenous movements in Latin America have mobilized. A wave of indigenous protests swept through the Andean countries beginning in the 1980s and made its presence felt as far north as Mexico. Indigenous groups have blocked roads, occupied buildings, and held mass rallies to let their demands be known. They have also entered the electoral arena in unprecedented numbers. Some indigenous groups and leaders have allied with non-indigenous parties, lending their support to the parties in exchange for candidacies or policy concessions. Other indigenous groups have opted to form their own political parties. In Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Guatemala, indigenous parties have launched presidential campaigns and in a host of other Latin American countries indigenous parties have competed in legislative or municipal elections.





Bolivia’s Movement toward Socialism, known as the MAS for its Spanish initials, has been the most successful of the indigenous parties. The MAS has dominated Bolivian politics since 2005, winning every major election since that time. Its leader, Evo Morales, has occupied the presidency for the last eight years, and the MAS currently controls both houses of the Bolivian legislature as well as most of the country’s departments.





Another indigenous party, Ecuador’s Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, has also achieved some noteworthy electoral successes. In the 1996, 1998, and 2002 elections, Pachakutik won approximately ten percent of the legislative vote and 15 to 20 percent of the presi- dential vote in alliance with other parties. Pachakutik’s presidential candidate, Lucio Gutiérrez, even captured the presidency in 2002. Gutiérrez, however, was not a member of Pachakutik, but rather affiliated with an allied party, the Patriotic Society Party (PSP), and Pachakutik’s alliance with him broke apart less than a year after he took office. After the break with Gutiérrez, the party fell on hard times, and in recent elections it has won less than three percent of the vote.







Other indigenous parties have had even less success. Indeed, the vast majority of indigenous parties have never won more than three percent of the vote. The Pachacuti Indigenous Movement in Bolivia, not to be confused with Ecuador’s Pachakutik, did win six percent of the vote in 2002, the first time it competed in elections, but its vote share dropped to two percent in 2005, and it disappeared shortly thereafter. Winaq, an indigenous party founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, earned barely three percent of the national vote in Guatemala in 2007 and 2011. The indigenous parties that have emerged in other countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela have fared even worse, largely failing to win votes outside of their regional base.

The mixed record of indigenous parties in Latin America raises the question of what the future holds in store for these parties. Will indigenous parties in other countries be able to duplicate the achievements of the MAS and Pachakutik? And what sorts of obstacles must they overcome to do so?

The low level of ethnic consciousness in Latin America is, perhaps, the most significant obstacle to the success of indigenous parties. Indigenous ethnic consciousness has increased in the region in recent decades, but it still remains relatively low. Although the vast majority of the population of Latin America is at least partly of indigenous descent, most Latin Americans identify as mestizo (mixed), rather than as indigenous, and they have not traditionally voted along ethnic lines. Even people who speak an indigenous language and maintain traditional indigenous practices and customs often prefer to self-identify as mestizo. According to 2008 data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), for example, more than two-thirds of the Bolivian population self-identifies as mestizo, even though approximately half of the popula- tion speaks an indigenous language, and approximately three quarters of Bolivians identify to some degree with Aymara or Quechua culture. Other surveys have found a higher number of self-identified indigenous people in Bolivia, but the very fact that the percentage of people who self-identify as indigenous varies considerably across surveys is an indication of the relatively low level of ethnic consciousness in the region.

















The low level of ethnic consciousness stems in part from the racial and ethnic mixing (mestizaje) that has occurred in Latin America since the earliest days of the conquest. Widespread mestizaje has reduced ethnic polar- ization and blurred the lines between members of different ethnic groups. Latin American countries also deliberately discouraged the formation of ethnic consciousness on the part of indigenous people as part of the nation-building process. Perhaps most importantly, widespread social dis- crimination against indigenous people has deterred those of indigenous descent from identifying as indigenous.

This lack of ethnic consciousness has made it difficult for indigenous parties to win support from voters based on ethnic appeals alone. Citizens who do not identify strongly with a particular ethnic group are unlikely to vote based purely on ethnic considerations, while candidates are often reluctant to make explicit ethnic appeals or even identify themselves explicitly as indigenous for fear of alienating those voters who do not identify as indigenous.

Indigenous parties have also been hindered by the poverty that afflicts most indigenous communities. Indigenous people typically occupy the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder in Latin America. They earn less income on average than non-indigenous people, enjoy fewer years of education, and live in more isolated areas with less infrastructure and fewer services. According to a World Bank study, 71.4 percent of indigenous Bolivians lived in poverty in 2002, as opposed to 50.4 percent of non-indigenous people. Similarly, in Ecuador 80.2 percent of the indigenous population fell below the poverty line in 2003, compared to 57.9 percent of non-indigenous people. Data from Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico reveal similar poverty gaps.





The poverty that afflicts most indigenous commu- nities has made it difficult for indigenous parties to fund their campaigns. Indigenous parties have been unable to raise significant funds in indigenous communities and they have typically lacked the social and political contacts necessary to raise funds elsewhere. As a result, they have been unable to pay campaign staffers, hire pollsters, purchase campaign advertisements, and give away goods at campaign events.

The successful indigenous parties, namely the MAS and, for a time, Pachakutik, have overcome these obstacles in two main ways. First, they have relied heavily on the support of broad networks of social movements to make up for their lack of financial resources. Both the MAS and the Pachakutik emerged from strong indigenous movements that had dense networks of affiliated organizations in rural indigenous areas. The indigenous organizations supplied the parties with activists to staff the campaigns and a variety of material resources, including food, transportation, meeting spaces, and campaign propaganda. They also provided their seal of approval to the fledgling parties. In addition, the MAS and Pachakutik forged ties to a broad array of other social movements, including unions, professional associations, neighborhood groups, and human rights and environ- mental organizations. These groups gave the indigenous parties an organizational base and a variety of human and material resources in the cities and other areas where the indigenous movement was weak.

Second, the MAS and, initially, Pachakutik as well have sought to turn the low level of ethnic consciousness to their advantage by reaching out to whites and mestizos as well as indigenous people. Normally, ethnic parties would have a difficult time winning the support of members of other ethnic groups, but the porousness of ethnic bound- aries in Latin America and the lack of ethnic polarization made a more inclusive strategy feasible. The core constituency of the two parties was the indigenous population, and both the MAS and Pachakutik wooed indigenous voters in part through ethnic appeals: developing strong links to indigenous leaders and organizations, employing indigenous symbols and languages, and embracing many of the demands of the indigenous movement, such as territorial autonomy and multicultural education. But the MAS and Pachakutik were careful to avoid exclusionary rhetoric or proposals in favor of continually emphasizing their inclusive nature. Moreover, they took concrete steps to win the support of whites and mestizos, namely recruiting numerous non-indigenous candidates, forging ties to non-indigenous organizations, and developing broad platforms that addressed a variety of non-ethnic issues.


Traditional populist strategies were a key compo- nent of the efforts of the MAS and Pachakutik to win the support of voters of all ethnicities. They ran personalist campaigns focusing on the charismatic appeal of their leaders. They denounced the traditional parties and elites and presented themselves as political outsiders who would serve the interests of the poor. They criticized neoliberal policies and foreign intervention and called for the recu- peration of the countries’ natural resources and increased social spending. This ethnopopulist strategy helped the indigenous parties win the support of traditional populist constituencies, such as urban mestizos, as well as indigenous people.

Prospects for Indigenous Parties

In the years ahead, other indigenous parties may try to follow the same ethnopopulist path to power. Yet the successes of the MAS and Pachakutik will not be easy to duplicate for several reasons. To begin with, ethnic demo- graphics in most Latin American countries are not nearly as favorable as they are in Bolivia and Ecuador. Estimates of the size of the self-identified indigenous population in Bolivia and Ecuador typically range from 20 to 75 per- cent in Bolivia and from 6 to 15 percent in Ecuador. By contrast, in the vast majority of Latin American countries, self-identified indigenous people represent less than ten percent of the total population, and in most cases, less than five percent. The only countries other than Bolivia and Ecuador where the indigenous population is typically estimated to be above 10 percent of the population are Guatemala and Peru. Thus, these two countries are clearly the most promising locations for successful indigenous parties from a demographic point of view.


Given the low level of ethnic polarization in Latin America, the size of the indigenous population might seem to be of little importance to the success of indigenous par- ties in the region. After all, the MAS and Pachakutik were able to obtain significant numbers of white and mestizo votes. Even so, however, both parties fared much better among indigenous voters than non-indigenous voters. According to a 2006 LAPOP survey, Evo Morales and the MAS won 71 percent of the vote of self-identified indigenous people, 51 percent of the vote of self-identified mestizos, and 32 percent of the vote of self-identified whites in the 2005 elections in Bolivia. Similar trends were identified in Ecuador in 2002. Both the MAS and Pachakutik also consistently fared much better in majority indigenous areas than in majority non-indigenous areas. Ethnic demographics therefore do matter for the success of indigenous parties, posing difficulties for indigenous parties to succeed at the national level in most countries of the region.


Another reason why indigenous parties may find it difficult to emulate the success of the MAS and Pacha- kutik is that indigenous movements in Latin America are relatively weak outside of Bolivia and Ecuador. In many countries the weakness of the indigenous movement is related to the small size and territorial concentration of the indigenous population. Indigenous movements in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela, for example, have influence in the states, provinces, or departments, where the indigenous population is concen- trated and represents a large proportion of the population, but the movements have little clout at the national level because indigenous people represent a small proportion of the national electorate. Moreover, the areas where the indigenous population is concentrated are often located far from the national capitals of these countries, making it difficult for the indigenous movements to assemble large numbers of people in the capitals to carry out protests or make their voices heard.

The indigenous movement is weak even in Guatemala and Peru where self-identified indigenous people represent a significant share of the population. As Deborah Yashar has argued, the weakness of the indigenous movement in these two countries is related to the high levels of violence that indigenous communities experienced, particularly in the 1980s, as a result of the conflict between left-wing guerrillas and the military. In Peru the Shining Path guer- rilla movement targeted indigenous community activists and organizations in an effort to eliminate autonomous leadership in the areas where the guerrilla movement was active. In Guatemala, it was the military itself that targeted indigenous communities and leaders who were viewed as being sympathetic to the guerrillas. As a result, civil society was severely weakened in rural indigenous communities in both countries.

Although the level of violence in the countryside gradually declined in the 1990s, the indigenous movements remained relatively weak in both countries. Democrati- zation brought an upsurge in the number of indigenous non-governmental organizations in Guatemala City, but these organizations have weak links to the countryside and little ability to carry out mass protests or influence votes. Moreover, the various Guatemalan indigenous or- ganizations have only loose ties amongst themselves and lack an umbrella organization to coordinate their actions. Peruvian indigenous organizations also lack a strong na- tional federation. The Peruvian Amazon boasts a couple of relatively strong regional indigenous federations, but these organizations only represent a tiny fraction of Peru’s indigenous citizens, the vast majority of whom live in the highlands. There are several highlands organizations with national pretensions, such as the Confederation of Peru- vian Peasants (CCP), but none of them have an extensive membership or a significant presence throughout the highlands. Furthermore, these organizations have only recently adopted an ethnic discourse.

The weakness and fragmentation of indigenous or- ganizations in Guatemala and Peru mean that they can- not provide much assistance to indigenous parties. Some indigenous organizations in Guatemala supported the indigenous party, Winaq, in the 2007 and 2011 elections, but they did not have many organizational resources to lend to her campaign. As a result, Winaq fared poorly even in rural indigenous areas. In Peru, various indigenous or- ganizations have sought to form political parties, but they have had little success in doing so largely due to the lack of human and material resources necessary to register a party and carry out a national campaign. In 2011, for example, Alberto Pizango, the head of an Amazon-based indigenous federation, announced the creation of a new indigenous party, but he failed to register the party in time for the elections in part because his indigenous organization had few supporters and organizational resources outside of the Amazon. Thus, until the indigenous movement unites and becomes stronger, it is unlikely to serve as the basis for a successful national party in either Guatemala or Peru.

Future indigenous parties may also have a difficult time duplicating the successes of the MAS and Pachakutik because they will not typically be able to employ populist strategies as effectively as these two parties did. Populist parties have traditionally relied on the charisma of their leaders, and the MAS and Pachakutik are no exceptions. The MAS has benefited immensely from the popular grassroots appeal of Evo Morales, who routinely fares better in elections than any of the MAS’s other candidates. Neither the Peruvian nor the Guatemalan indigenous movement has leaders with the popular appeal of Morales, however. Menchú is a well-known figure in Guatemala, but she is viewed by many as an international figurehead rather than a domestic leader. She has also been criticized for distancing herself from the poor and making alliances with political elites. Peru, meanwhile, lacks well-known indigenous leaders altogether.


In order to duplicate the MAS’s path to power, then, indigenous movements in the region will either have to develop charismatic leaders or recruit candidates from outside of the indigenous movements. Pachakutik did not have a well-known and charismatic leader like Morales, but it recruited popular outsiders as its presidential candi- dates in 1996, 1998, and 2002, which benefited the party enormously, at least in the short run. Indeed, Pachakutik’s electoral performance declined considerably beginning in 2006 when it ran an internal candidate for president rather than a well-known, charismatic outsider. As it discovered, however, the downside of relying on candidates from out- side of the indigenous movement is that such candidates may turn out in the end to have very different priorities than indigenous leaders.


Future indigenous parties may also find the elector- ate less receptive to some of the populist programmatic appeals that the MAS and Pachakutik used effectively. In Bolivia and Ecuador, opposition to market-oriented reforms was high in the early 2000s, due in part to the serious economic troubles the countries experienced during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The anti-neoliberal rheto- ric and platforms of the MAS and Pachakutik thus struck a chord with many voters in these countries. By contrast, market-oriented policies have been more popular in Guate- mala and Peru in recent years, ow- ing to the steady economic growth these countries have recently en- joyed. Economic growth has been particularly strong in Peru, which has grown between five and ten percent annually, helping to con- solidate support for the country’s market-oriented economic model. Future indigenous parties may also find it more difficult to exploit anti-US sentiments than the MAS and Pachakutik did. US-sponsored coca eradication programs in Bolivia generated extensive anti-US sentiments, as did the presence of a US Air Force base and the activities of US oil companies in Ecuador. By contrast, anti-US sentiments have been weaker in Guatemala and Peru and other Latin American countries that lack high-profile examples of US intervention. Thus, indigenous parties outside of Bolivia and Ecuador may find nationalist and anti-neoliberal appeals less effective than the MAS and Pachakutik did.





Although indigenous parties have not been able to duplicate the electoral achievements of the MAS and Pachakutik and may have little chance of coming to power in most Latin American countries, they have nevertheless already reshaped the politics of the region. The emergence of indigenous parties has led other parties to undertake greater efforts to woo indigenous voters in order to stem the rise of indigenous parties. Parties of all stripes have recruited indigenous candidates, sought the support of indigenous organizations and leaders, and adopted some traditional indigenous demands, like support for agrarian reform and bilingual education. Latin American democra- cies have become more inclusive and multicultural, and in the long term this may be the most important legacy of indigenous parties in the region.