Bolivia: A Testing Year for Bolivia’s Democracy

The tide that swept leftist governments to power in Latin America over a decade ago has dramatically receded in recent years. The resulting political struggles between left and right have seen a rise in undemocratic tendencies, with dubious methods utilised both by presidents to retain power, as well as by opponents seeking to depose incumbents. 

Bolivia under Evo Morales has proved no exception, as previously outlined in this blog. In this context, 2019 increasingly looks like being a pivotal year for Bolivia’s democracy. Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on October 20th, where visions of the past and present will vie to control the country’s future. 

In particular, current President Evo Morales will be seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, having managed to overturnthe result of a 2016 plebiscite in which a majority voted against the abolition of term limits. 

Since the shock of that result, Morales and his government have done what they tend to do when faced with setbacks: retrench and find a way around the problem by whatever means necessary. In this case a friendly Supreme Court acceded to the government’s petition to override the plebiscite, thus abolishing term limits. In turn the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ratified that rulingand registered the candidacy of Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia-Linera.

The government’s manoeuvrings prompted a significant backlash. In the immediate aftermath of the TSE decision, a series of protests eruptedinvolving work stoppages, blockades, marches and vigils. Opponents have come together under the heading of ‘Bolivia Dijo No!’(Bolivia Said No!). The coalition is an uneasy one, however, as it contains a mixture of right-wing opponents from wealthy sectors and disillusioned former Morales supporters. The former group, in particular, has shown violent tendencies, evidenced by the burningof the TSE building in Santa Cruz. Such behaviour is unlikely to win over wavering middle-class voters, however.

Morales has sought to prey on these doubts by offering stability, further poverty reduction, and continued economic growth, which has averaged five per cent during his 13 years in power. Furthermore, the recent launch of a system of universal healthcareis a departure from the more targeted and clientelistic social protection measurestypically employed by the government.

Nevertheless, seasoned observers have noted that Morales has a habit of launching big initiatives in the period before presidential elections. Nor was the healthcare plan well-received by doctors, who launched industrial actionand criticised the lack of funding for beds, supplies and staff.

Other recent initiatives, however, appear to be more overt attempts to utilise state power to influence the outcome of the election. One example was the holding of mandatory primary electionsin January. While on its face a move to enhance democratic processes, critics viewed the primaries as an attempt by Morales to expand his electoral base following the humiliation of the 2016 plebiscite.

Furthermore, the measure was imposed in late 2018with little warning, and provided opposition parties with a very short period within which to register candidates. In particular, the timeframe meant that the opposition was unable to coalesce around a single candidate. The conduct of the processwas also hampered by low turnout – partly explained by many parties calling for a boycott – and allegations of significant irregularities. The result was that the opposition emerged divided, with nine candidates set to contest the election.

Nonetheless, the main rival that has emerged is a name from Bolivia’s past: former president Carlos Mesa. A mild-mannered journalist and historian, Mesa is widely respected. Nevertheless, his association with the unpopular government of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (‘Goni’) – who Mesa served as Vice-President before taking over when Goni was ousted – continues to dog his candidacy. Mesa’s refusal to formalise an alliance with any party is evidence that he is aware of this weakness.

In response to the threat of Mesa, Morales has used more direct tactics to damage his rival. These have included accusing Mesa of causing economic damageto the state due to his nationalisation of a Chilean company when president – ironic given that Morales’ signature promise when first elected was the purported nationalisation of the country’s gas reserves – and levelling charges of accepting bribesfrom a Brazilian construction company. 

The overall image forged by Morales’ actions over the past three years – commencing with the overturning of the result of the 2016 plebiscite, and running through the primaries to the use of the state apparatus to target a political rival – is of a government that increasingly adheres to the typology of “competitive authoritarianism” developed by Levitsky and Way[i]

The reason underlying these actions is that Morales’s grip on power has loosened significantly in recent years due to the inherent contradictions of his governing model. Morales relies heavily on rents from gas, mining and agribusiness for redistribution and public spending. The end of the commodities boom has seen the government go to ever-greater lengths to boost income, even opening up protected areasfor oil and gas exploration. 

The result has been a series of conflicts between the self-styled ‘government of the social movements’ and social movements themselves[ii]. The disconnect between this model and Morales’ environmentalist discourse can no longer be overlooked.

Furthermore, the kind of large-scale infrastructure projects undertaken by the government have traditionally been sources of patronage and bribery in Bolivia. It is far from surprising then that Morales’ government has been dogged by allegations of corruption, nepotism and vanity[iii].

Nevertheless, Morales remains a popular and indeed historic figure in Bolivia whose importance as a symbol continues to resonate with many. Recent opinion pollsappear to show that Morales’s lead over Mesa is growing, albeit slowly.

The biggest problem facing Morales looks likely to be the electoral system, and in particular the run-off vote. In each of his three previous victories, Morales was elected with over 50 per cent of the vote, thereby avoiding a second round of voting. That outcome appears unlikely on this occasion.

Instead Morales’ core vote appears to be closer to 30 per cent. Even allowing for the fact that polls routinely under-estimate support for Morales, if the president fails to triumph over Mesa by more than ten per cent it would trigger a run-off. A second round would place the president in a very different situation, facing a single candidate around whom a diffuse and divided opposition could coalesce. Indeed, opinion pollsindicate that Mesa would win a run-off vote against Morales.

Were this to occur, it would represent a significant test for Bolivia’s institutions and its current president’s commitment to democracy.


[i]Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

[ii]The ongoing socio-environmental conflict in the protected area of Tariquiaover hydrocarbon concessions granted without any prior consultation with indigenous communities is just the most recent of such clashes.

[iii]The construction of a 29-storey presidential palace – named The Great House of the People – for a cost of $34 million is the most high-profile example of this tendency.

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