Bolivia: What Happens in a Power Vacuum5 min read


On November 10th, 2019, Evo Morales resigned from his position as president of Bolivia after three terms in office. A left-leaning leader, his “administration invested heavily in public works projects and social programmes to fight poverty [resulting] in extreme poverty dropping from 38% in 2006 to 17% in 2018.” Popular support for Morales had been waning, however, in recent weeks.

His resignation was preceded by weeks of peaceful protests following contested election results. After going dark for twenty-four hours, the electoral council declared that Morales narrowly beat out the opposition. Protesters immediately took to the streets to contest the results, forcing Morales to allow an independent auditor to look into the election. When the Organization of American States (OAS) declared that there had been election irregularities, Morales stated that he would hold new elections. However, protests continued and Morales finally stepped down after being asked to by the head of the Bolivian Armed Forces, Commander Williams Kaliman. Claiming that he was ousted in a coup, Morales sought political asylum in Mexico.

Following the resignation of the Vice President and President of the Senate, Vice President of the Senate, Jeanie Áñez, declared herself the interim president, despite not having the minimum number of legislative votes. She has promised to get Congress to sign a bill that will allow new elections to be held and does not plan on allowing Morales to run. 

A Legitimacy Issue

Morales’ regime lost its legitimacy after his political party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), ignored the results of a 2016 referendum in which a narrow majority voted to keep the two term limit for Bolivian president. After MAS presented the question to the constitutional court, it voted to abolish term limits, and this decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court. Although initially a very popular president, a lot of Morales’ support was waning after fourteen years in power. His actions undermined democracy within the nation, and citizens were upset with the democratic backsliding. 

When the electoral commission went dark for twenty-four hours before ultimately declaring Morales the winner, people suspected that foul play was involved. Bolivians watched political institutions such as the constitutional court, Supreme Court, and electoral commision, which are all supposed to be impartial, become partisan and pick the president’s side. Morales’ manipulation of the institutions that are supposed to uphold democracy seemed to be the final straw for Bolivians. By bending the rules to maintain his power, he lost any semblance of legitimacy as a democratic leader.

A Second Legitimacy Issue

Jeanie Áñez, however, also has a legitimacy problem on her hands since she was neither elected by the people nor the constitutionally-defined number of legislators. Since Morales’ resignation his supporters have taken to the streets to decry what they see as a coup and demand Áñez’s resignation. 

These protesters have set up roadblocks around the capital city of La Paz, cutting off its access to gasoline and food. On November 19th, a military unit opened fire on protesters who had been surrounding a gasoline plant for over a week. These officers were most likely emboldened by a decree from Áñez’s government “exempted members of the armed forces from criminal responsibility when they act ‘in legitimate defence or state of necessity.” By turning to the military repression, Áñez runs the risk of even further alienating a country that denies her right to govern. Considering the people’s frustration with Morales’ democratic backsliding, this seemingly authoritarian turn from Áñez will likely result in even greater pushback from the people.

Return to Stability

Given the people’s questioning of the government, the question now is what will it take for the country to return to stability after 5 weeks of protests? I think that the most important thing right now is holding elections as soon as possible. Having a democratically-elected leader will return some sense of legitimacy to the position of the presidency, and hopefully calm the tide of protests. Bolivia also needs to work on legitimizing state institutions and restoring people’s faith in the country’s democracy. Democracy only works if people are willing to cooperate, and if the citizens do not believe that the institutions in place truly work, then the democracy falls apart. 

The situation in Bolivia is currently very polarized between those who view Morales as a power-grabbing authoritarian and those who see him a leader wrongfully removed from power. In order to end the wave of protests, the government needs to find an approach that will balance these two opposing views. How can a new government restore the people’s faith in democracy? And what efforts must this government take to deal with the polarization that arose from these contested election results and Morales’ resignation?

Works Cited

  1. “Evo Morales: Bolivian leader’s turbulent presidency.”, 10 Nov 2019.
  2. “Evo Morales.”, 12 Nov 2019.
  3. “There’s A Power Vacuum in Bolivia after Evo Morales Left The Country. Here’s What You Need to Know.”, 12 Nov 2019.
  4. “Bolivia interim president announces peace talks amid renewed fury over deaths”, 22 Nov 2019.
  5. “Evo Morales: Bolivian leader’s turbulent presidency.”, 10 Nov 2019.
  6. “Bolivia: Interim Government Adopts Abusive Measures.” Human Rights, Nov 19 2019.

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