On Thursday, October 23rd, 2019 Bolivia completed another successful presidential election … or at least President Evo Morales wants it to seem that way. When a new constitution confirmed by the Bolivian government in 2009 took effect, many saw this as an opportunity to establish a successful presidential republic government, and for the first two elections that seemed to be the trend; however, Bolivia’s most recent political cycle has been rife with controversy that looms instability.
Public doubt over the administration grew with the repeal of one of the articles in the 2008 constitution. Initially the constitution, which President Evo Morales formed and approved, had implemented term limits for government officials. In 2016, a referendum was held to see if the public wished to dismiss this rule and the result concluded with the voters rejecting the suggestion. No more than a year later did the country’s courts actively subvert the people’s will by removing the law, stating it “violate[ed] Morales’ political rights as a citizen” (Time). Just this past week, doubt turned to fear as Morales declared himself victor of the presidential election, and stated that he would declare a “state of emergency” to fight against what he perceives to be a coup.
The reason heightened tensions persist past this declaration is due to a dispute over the outcome of the vote as the preliminary results showed the likely need for a run-off between current President Evo Morales and former president Carlos Mesa. Yet, twenty-four hour later, the election officials recalled their claim and declared that Morales was leading by ten percentage points… the exact number needed to avoid a run-off. Morales severely wanted to avoid any run-off as it placed him at potential dis-advantage due to the fact that the smaller parties would most likely join forces and align themselves with Mesa. Further uncertainty arose when Antonio Costas, a vice president on the court resigned in protest to his colleges not issuing periodical vote tally updates (New York Times). This being the case, this delay and recall places suspicion on the president and the democractic system as a whole as it suggests fraud, although no official claims have been made.
This level of democracy is relatively new to Bolivia. In the past, Bolivia had widespread political instability and from 2001-2009 had six different presidents (Council on Hemispheric Affairs). The fragility of the country’s government was amplified by the fractured social society (Council on Hemispheric Affairs). Evo Morales and the 2009 constitution helped provide the needed infrastructure for a successful democracy, however, with the overturning of term limits Bolivia, as opposition leader from the Christian Democratic Party puts it, has once again been “dealt a blow to democracy” (BBC). This can be seen as a loss of horizontal accountability, otherwise known as the ability of institutions to hold other institutions accountable, as the courts gave the executive branch more power by not limiting the number of times one can serve. The judiciary branch of the government did not fulfill its duties and instead chose to rule in union with the president instead of acting independently.
So why has Evo Morales, the man who has been running the country for the past 13 years, been so popular? Simple, he helped his nation thrive economically. For the past two elections he led Bolivia through a decade of economic successes and provided public services such as paved roads. He pulled in citizens with the notion that he would be able aid Bolivians by creating nationalized socialist projects (Nacla). His administration was able to “nationaliz[
ed] the country’s gas fields, oil refineries, pension funds, telecommunications, and main hydroelectric power plants” (Nacla). This control over its natural resources has placed more financial success into the pockets of the citizens which in turn give power back to Morales by voting to keep him in power (Cepr). The success of Bolivia, both financially and economically would have been a success story of the ages. Political scientist at Yale University, Diego von Vacano, notes that Evo Morales could have “attained the moral stature of a Mandela or a Simón Bolívar” but instead this “opportunity” has been “wasted” on a man who vied for more power (Guardian). A democratic crisis persists in Bolivia for the meantime, however, the Bolivian democracy should survive. Its democracy, however, will be scathed as every consequent election will be met with scrutiny and doubt over the legitimacy of its outcomes (Guardian). As discussed in the book How Democracies Die, democracies nowadays falter with small violations of the established norm, such as the rolling back of term limits. And while the current situation seems to be under limited control, President Evo Morales needs to raise public confidence otherwise he risks losing the democracy he built altogether. When the public begins to distrust the government it leads to societal breakdown. Looking at Bolivia as a whole, will it ever be able to recover from this tarnished election and rise to its former esteem and what else could further push its citizens to formally revolt and instigate a coup?
Achtenberg, Emily, and Rebel Currents. “Nationalization, Bolivian Style: Morales Seizes Electric Grid, Boosts Oil Incentives.” NACLA, 10 May 2012, nacla.org/blog/2012/5/10/nationalization-bolivian-style-morales-seizes-electric-grid-boosts-oil-incentives.
Blair, Laurence. “Evo for Ever? Bolivia Scraps Term Limits as Critics Blast ‘Coup’ to Keep Morales in Power.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Dec. 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/03/evo-morales-bolivia-president-election-limits.
“Bolivia Morales: Scrapping of Term Limits Is ‘Blow to Democracy’.” BBC News, BBC, 29 Nov. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-42165258.
Coha. “A Brief Recent History of Bolivia and the Rise of President Morales.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 24 Jan. 2009, www.coha.org/a-brief-recent-history-of-bolivia-and-the-rise-of-president-morales/.
Londoño, Ernesto. “’There Could Be a War’: Protests Over Elections Roil Bolivia.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/world/americas/boliva-election-protests.html.
Valdez, Carlos. “Bolivia’s Morales Claims Outright Win in Presidential Vote.” Time, Time, 24 Oct. 2019, time.com/5709720/bolivia-presidential-election-evo-morales/.
Weisbrot, Mark, et al. “Bolivia: The Economy During the Morales Administration: Reports.” CEPR, Dec. 2009, cepr.net/publications/reports/bolivian-economy-during-morales-administration.