Bolivia – Evo Morales Loses Referendum to Extend Term Limits

Term limits have frequently been challenged in Latin America, particularly in those countries in the Andes that Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes.[1]

Last month, in Bolivia, President Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum. This would have enabled Morales to be elected for a fourth consecutive term. However, with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate. This now means that Evo Morales will be unable to run in the 2019 presidential election and will have to leave office in early 2020. Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

The result was somewhat unexpected as Morales is massively popular, having overseen growth of 5 per cent per annum over the last decade and expanding social benefits to big tranches of previously unrepresented groups. Only this week, a poll suggested that his approval rating was approximately 58 per cent. Although Morales highlighted his economic success during the referendum campaign, he was dogged by a corruption scandal involving a former relationship from 2005 with the then eighteen year-old Gabriela Zapata, which saw him father a child with her. Zapata now holds an important position with the Chinese construction firm, CAMC, which has been awarded state contracts worth over US$576 million. When all this emerged during the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling and corruption, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform.

Morales has overwhelming support for his reform in the national assembly. Last October, the house overwhelmingly voted in favour of legislation to allow the referendum to go ahead (the MAS hold 88 of 130 seats in the house) although Morales’ opponents have repeatedly challenged his right to run in recent elections. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. On this basis, Morales’ opponents challenged his right to run in the last election in October 2014. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009 and as such, his opponents claimed he has already held two consecutive terms, and so was constitutionally barred from running again. The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office was not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect.

As I have repeatedly noted in this blog however, Morales is not alone in his quest to alter constitutional term limits in Latin America. Initially, most Latin American constitutions, to avoid the perils of presidentialism and prevent the long-term concentration of power in the hands of a few, limited presidents to one term in office. In fact, in 1990, the Dominican Republic was the only country that allowed presidential re-election.

However, beginning with Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori, Latin American presidents began to broker deals with legislatures and the electorate to allow for an extension and/or redefinition of term limits. The trend continues. In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term. In April 2014, Rafael Correa indicated support for a constitutional amendment that would largely abolish presidential term limits in Ecuador. Correa already oversaw a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term and last November, Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.

[1] See Levitsky and Way. 2013. Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes. Democratization. Vol. 20(1).

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