Despite the results of a referendum held in 2016, Bolivian President Evo Morales has decided to try and run for a fourth term in 2019. As of December 2017, the highest court in Bolivia has given him permission to do just that.
Morales returning for a fourth term may not seem all that bad for a nation that has grown economically and politically under his leadership. However, given the current state of the democracy in the nation I would argue that this act could serve as the finale to his decade long consolidation of power. That being said, continued political engagement and protest by citizens could potentially check this power moving forward, as well as attract international attention that could dissuade Morales from any additional blows against democracy.
Bolivia’s constitution contains a two-term limit for the President, something that Morales skirted around by being initially elected prior to the formation of the 2009 constitution, therefore not having his initial term count against his limit. Near the end of 2017 Morales took the issue to the highest court in Bolivia, claiming that a term limit went against his “human rights” and the political freedoms of those who wanted to vote for him again. Unsurprisingly, the regime-friendly courts ruled in his favor, essentially overruling the constitution and eliminating presidential term limits.
Now, the public is taking a stand against Morales and his undemocratic aims. Protests have begun to pop up across the country, calling for Morales to step down after his term expires in 2020 and allow others to run for election. While there is the possibility that he chooses not to run, it would appear as of now that he is still very much in the race.
In order to understand just how important Morales running for a fourth term is to the sanctity of Bolivian democracy, it is critical to observe all of the other ways in which democracy has been eroding in the country. According to Freedom House’s last report on Bolivia, their “partly free” rating has been on a downward trend as Morales and his party continue to limit political and civil rights.
In his piece on stealth authoritarianism, Ozan Varol outlines some of the most common ways that democracies breakdown quietly. We have seen Morales utilize all of these in the recent past. Accusations of electoral fraud, legal pursuit of the opposition, and media harassment have increased in recent years, and while citizens retain the right to organize themselves, the number of violent incidents related to protests has been on the rise. All of these things, combined with the new elimination of term limits, have culminated in a clear backsliding of democracy in Bolivia. While the country has managed to evade most criticism, this latest act gives Morales the ability to continue this downward trend into the future, now with fewer safeguards to stop him.
That being said, the people of Bolivia are certainly not silent on the issue of democratic backsliding, and their opposition to Morales and his fourth term has been loud. Protests have continued around the country, with well-known public figures such as Dakar racer Leonardo Martinez speaking out against Morales. Public outrage has been especially notable seeing as Morales has clearly violated the public will by going against the referendum results, and in doing so, has caused his public approval rating to drop to an all time low.
Perhaps most important to note is the fact that these protests have worked in Bolivia before. Earlier in 2017, Morales attempted to pass a penal code reform that outraged the physicians, journalists, and religious leaders that it was targeted at. Public protest and a physicians strike eventually led to the reform being revoked, demonstrating the potential impact that protests can have on the issue of presidential term limits, as well as the many issues likely to come between now and the 2019 elections.
Moving forward, it will be critical for Morales’ opposition to remain in the public eye, and for Bolivian citizens to remain active in the political arena. Chenoweth and Stephan’s 2008 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Logic of Nonviolent Conflict speaks on the importance protest and nonviolent action, and the fact that nonviolent struggles have historically had more success than violent struggles. Based on this, a continued, diverse, and organized nonviolent form of resistance will be critical in keeping Bolivia’s democracy from eroding even further.
Additionally, nonviolent protest often does a good job of garnering international and regional attention, something that could aid in Bolivia’s democratic efforts. International pressure – specifically pressure from other South American countries – may encourage Morales to end his reign at the third term, as well as set an important precedent for other countries entering the arena of stealth authoritarianism.
Bolivia is currently at a democratic crossroads, and Morales’ legal victory on the constitutionality of presidential term limits could be the lynchpin to dismantling the democracy that Bolivia has worked throughout history to build. However, the Bolivian population is not so ready to give up the fight. It is possible that their continued political engagement and the international attention that it may receive could turn the tides of democracy in Bolivia.