Not many would disagree, international observers and Bolivians alike, that this upcoming election in Bolivia will be a fork in the road for the country and the state of its democracy. The election will take place on October 20th of this year. Why is this election so controversial in the eyes of many? It is because it is possible that this election may be another step backwards towards a less free or even authoritarian Bolivia. Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia, was elected to his first five-year term in 2005. Morales is now running for his fourth term in 2019. While his first election was a landslide victory, the process leading up to his fourth election has been his most difficult yet. This is in large part due to many realizing the tactics that Morales has employed to erode Bolivia’s democracy and remain in power. Morales was never supposed to have a fourth term. Bolivia’s constitution forbid presidents for serving for more than three terms, a check to power to protect Bolivia’s democracy and prevent any one person for ruling for a lifetime. Thus, when Morales began his campaign to abolish term limits in order to continue leading Bolivia, many were reasonably worried as that can often be a slippery slope.
Despite worries of a deteriorating democracy, Morales still is popular in Bolivia. Perhaps he not as popular during his first two terms, but he still leads in many presidential polls. Many would classify Evo Morales as a populist, including Steven Levitsky and James Loxton in their article “Populism and competitive authoritarianism in the Andes”. The article cites his candidacy stemming from the cocoa grower’s movement, and Morales was the first indigenous president in a country that is 60% indigenous. Morales’s platform was as a man for the people, but Levitsky and Loxton describe him has a different sort of populist than say other Latin American populists like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela or Alberto Fujimori of Peru. Morales is a movement populist: his populism was rooted in the grassroots movement around him and his political party, MAS, rather than him personally or his personality. Morales also remains popular not just because of his ideology, but his accomplishments as well. Morales’s policies have helped the Bolivian economy significantly, cutting the poverty rate from 2002 by more than half by 2012.
Morales’s Potential Autocracy
Perhaps this distinction would prevent Morales from attempting to dismantle democratic norms in the country, but as we’ve seen this is not the case. Morales and his political party had little investment in the current political institutions, which most likely has played a roll in Morales’s quest for a fourth term. It is important to address what strategies Evo Morales used to eventually remove term limits to pave the way for his presidential run this year. His technique is in reality very much in line with many of the other populists in the recent decades who have eroded democracy in their countries, which is another bad sign for Bolivia. The first was Morales’s attempt to use a referendum to legitimize the abolishment of term limits in 2016. This is to give the half-true appearance of a democracy, to demonstrate that it is the people’s will for Morales to remain in power potentially indefinitely. However, this referendum failed to pass. This led to Morales instituting another technique, which is mentioned by Ozan Varol in his article “Stealth Authoritarianism”. Morales used the judiciary, which is normally a check against the executive’s power, to actually consolidate power and make a ruling in his favor; that preventing someone from running on past terms was a “human right violation”, thus eliminating term limits in Bolivia. The judiciary of Bolivia in fact was once a conservative branch against Morales which he replaced, mentioned in Levitsky and Loxton’s article. “Stacking the courts” as one might put it, is another symptom of “stealth authoritarianism”, strategic use of pre-existing laws and norms to consolidate power in the executive.
This all sounds pretty damming for Morales as a democratic leader. Since his multiple terms, Freedom House has lowered Bolivia’s freedom status from “free” to “partly free”. However, while Morales may have used his power to allow himself to run for another term, the election in itself is expected to be fair. Morales’s highest polling opposition candidate is Carlos Mesa and despite the numbers being somewhat competitive, Mesa has his own set of problems. Mesa was former vice president of Bolivia, serving under Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who had to resign amid mass protests where the state killed 60 people in an attempt to repress the protests. Mesa thus became president, but then was also forced to resign. This was the condition Bolivia was in when Morales ran for president and was elected. Thus, many Bolivians are not sure what they should do: Evo Morales seems to be consolidating power bit by bit, yet under his administration the country has improved significantly. Carlos Mesa seems to be the exact opposite of this: a president of Bolivia when the country was in a worse state and a representation of Bolivia’s elite, but has respect for democratic institutions and norms. Depending on where you stand in society will change your outlook on the presidential race. The only thing that is certain is that this may very well be one of the most significant elections in modern Bolivian history.