On November 10, 2019, facing claims of election fraud and demands from the country’s military for his resignation, Bolivian President Evo Morales stepped down, after almost 14 years at the head of the government. To supporters of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales’ resignation signifies a coup d’état and overreach of military power. To his opponents, the event marks “the end of tyranny” in Bolivia. How did we get here? Well, it is impossible to understand the current state of Bolivian politics without first exploring Evo Morales’ complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with democracy. Hailed by some as South America’s Nelson Mandela and criticized by others as a dictator to be, the legacy of Evo Morales is far more nuanced than either of these narratives would lead one to believe. Left grappling with Morales’ legacy, Bolivia is faced with a challenge upon which the future of its democracy is contingent: can the country chart a path that seeks to repair democratic institutions eroded under Morales while maintaining the progress towards a more egalitarian society achieved by his administration?
Bolivia’s current democratic crisis began with allegations of electoral fraud in its 2019 presidential election, which eventually led to Morales’ downfall. While the integrity of this election remains heavily disputed, with the Organization of American States (OAS) alleging “intentional manipulation” and “serious irregularities” and independent researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) maintaining that the OAS’s investigation was deeply flawed, Morales was nonetheless forced to leave office after public opinion and his own armed forces turned against him. Following Morales’ resignation, right-wing politician Jeanine Añez assumed the role of interim president, calling for elections in May of 2020 in which she would not participate. However, Añez has since gone back on her promise to recuse herself from the elections, declaring a bid for the presidency. Moreover, the snap elections were delayed indefinitely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but have since been tentatively scheduled to occur before August 2 to the dismay of Añez, who appears to be maximizing her time in office in order to bolster her electoral credentials. As the debacle of the 2019 Presidential election severely damaged public faith in electoral integrity, it remains uncertain whether the 2020 elections can change the country’s trajectory.
Before exploring Evo Morales’ actions as president, it is necessary to first begin to pin down the elusive term that is “democracy.” Some political theorists adopt a “minimalist” perspective, viewing a democratic system as one in which there is considerable competition for power via electoral means, while others believe that democracy is incomplete without a certain degree of civil and personal freedoms. Yet, some critics, such as Gills and Rocamora, believe that even this definition is insufficient, arguing that the first and foremost objective of all democratic regimes should be to pursue social reform and progress; to abandon these goals is to abandon the very values at the heart of democracy. It is with this framework that I will examine the impact of Evo Morales’ presidency.
To begin with, it is quite evident that Morales and his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), did undercut the integrity of democratic institutions in Bolivia. Under MAS leadership, the independence of the judiciary was essentially erased. Morales was handed the power to directly appoint “interim” judges, a partisan council began to arbitrarily dismiss judges, and presidential terms limits were eliminated by MAS-friendly judicial appointees after such a proposal was initially rejected by the Bolivian people in a referendum. Moreover, MAS introduced laws imposing greater federal control over both civil society and the media, leading to widespread self-censorship. By these metrics, it appears that the Morales presidency was a period of clear democratic backsliding.
Yet, at the same time, Evo Morales made considerable progress in addressing Bolivia’s entrenched social injustices and tangibly improved the quality of life for millions of Bolivians. Under the Morales presidency, extreme poverty fell by more than half, from 36% in 2005 to 17% in 2019, Bolivia’s GDP grew, on average, by nearly 5% annually, and economic inequality decreased by more than 16 points on the GINI index. Morales and MAS instituted social programs to keep poor children in school and offered significant financial aid to both pregnant women and the elderly. Morales, while imperfect on the matter, has fought for gender equality, as demonstrated by half of his initial cabinet appointees being women, and has also helped Bolivia become the fourth Latin American country to allow individuals to legally change their gender. Lastly, and potentially most importantly, the Morales presidency symbolized the end of oppression for Bolivia’s indigenous people in a country so full of racial discrimination and hatred that it has been compared to South African apartheid by some. Thus, Morales’ role in the creation of a more egalitarian society cannot be understated when analyzing his relationship with democracy.
Evo Morales leaves us with a complicated legacy to dissect, on the one hand having undoubtedly eroded democratic institutions and the separation of powers in the Bolivian government, yet on the other bringing great social and economic reform to Bolivia, affirming the full citizenship of Bolivia’s downtrodden and oppressed. Rather than conceptualizing the Morales presidency as moving either towards or away from democracy, we should, as Morten Valbjørn suggests in relation to the Arab world, envision the historical changes enacted under the Morales administration as a “transition to somewhere.” Such changes undoubtedly constitute a movement away from the status quo and the Washington consensus, but this new political ontology neither wholly reinforces nor erodes democracy.
To better understand MAS’s apparent commitment to social reform but disregard for democratic norms, it is valuable to look at the historical conditions from which the party emerged. At the turn of the 21st century, Bolivia was in the midst of a crisis of inequality, with widespread discrimination of indigenous people and an astronomical GINI coefficient of 61.6, the highest in the world at the time. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was contracting paramilitary organizations to, often violently, crack down on coca production, and the Bolivian government was engaged in agreements with both the IMF and the World Bank.
Frustrations with neoliberal economics and foreign interference boiled over in the massive protests of the Cochabamba Water War (1999-2000) and Bolivian gas conflict (2003-2005), the latter of which eventually forced the resignation of two presidents (Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005). Considering the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo in Bolivia at the time, it is no surprise that the Bolivian public was especially receptive to MAS’s left-wing populist agenda, running on a platform defined by anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism. From the beginning, the party’s foremost objective has been social and economic reform, and over time it has become apparent that, as with many populist parties, upholding procedural democracy became a secondary priority for MAS.
In recognizing the democratic shortfalls of Evo Morales and MAS, it would be misleading to characterize Bolivia’s right-wing establishment politicians as arbiters of liberal democracy. Not only do many of the right’s political leaders, such as interim president Jeanine Añez, have a history of outright racism and discrimination against the country’s indigenous population, but Añez has already demonstrated authoritarian tendencies in her short time in office, arresting political opponents on trumped up charges and authorizing violent crackdowns on protesters.
Bolivia’s 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be a three-way race that will dictate the future of the country’s political system. Bolivian voters will soon come to decide between Jeanine Añez’s heavily conservative platform, Carlos Mesa’s neoliberal democracy, and MAS candidate Luis Arce’s continuation of Morales’ legacy, none of which demonstrate a clear path towards stable democracy. Jeanine Añez has already demonstrated an illiberal personality and ambivalence towards democratic norms. While Carlos Mesa’s proposed return to procedural democracy and the Washington consensus may appear attractive, one must also remember that neoliberal economics were the primary cause of Bolivia’s political instability in the early 2000s and the subsequent rise of MAS. Finally, it is uncertain if Luis Arce, the current frontrunner with a platform very similar to that of Morales, would demonstrate the same disregard for procedural democracy as his predecessor.
Hopefully, the progress towards a
more just society made under the Morales administration will culminate in a
stronger civil society and a populace that will reject anti-democratic politics
moving forward. However, as long as democratic reform and opposition to
neoliberalism remain mutually exclusive, it appears unlikely that a path
towards stable democracy will emerge, as public faith in neoliberal policies to
bring prosperity is exceptionally low among the country’s poor. As Rafael
Caldera noted in regards to Hugo Chavez’s failed coup in 1992, “It is difficult
to ask the people to sacrifice themselves for freedom and democracy when they
think that freedom and democracy are incapable of giving them food to eat.” It
is up to Bolivia’s next president to synthesize these two policies, continuing
Evo Morales’ legacy of socioeconomic reform while repairing the democratic
institutions undercut by his administration. Only then will Bolivia have
achieved a solid foundation upon which to build a resilient liberal democracy.
 Diamond, Larry. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (April 2002): 21–35.
 Gills, Barry, and Joel Rocamora. “Low intensity democracy.” Third World Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1992): 501–523.
 Valbjørn, Morten. “Reflections on self-reflections – On framing the analytical implications of the Arab uprisings for the study of Arab politics.” Democratization 22, no 2 (2015): 218-238
 Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Fateful Alliances.” In How Democracies Die, 11–33. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2018.