Last weekend, on October 18th, Luis Arce of the Movimiento al Socialismo (Mas) party won the Bolivian presidential election by a comfortable margin and Jeanine Anez, the evangelical leader of the opposing party, the Democrat Social Movement, ceded power to him peacefully.
This comes as somewhat of a surprise following a violent police-military coup to install her as interim president last winter, which raises the questions: will this recent peaceful transfer of power lead to a more stable Bolivian democracy?
Recent events in Bolivia suggest that a departure from authoritarian leaders could lead to a return to a stable democracy but to answer this question, one must first assess Bolivia’s historical democratic record and understand why Bolivia’s government has been characterized as undemocratic.
Bolivia has faced a long period of fraudulent elections, corruption, violence, and economic disparity. This period of instability has recently culminated in Mas leader, Evo Morales becoming the longest serving President of Bolivia in 2015. After being elected for his fourth term in 2019, Morales and his supporters were challenged by a police-military coup by opposition leaders. In “the restoration of order and public stability,” interim president, Jeanine Anez, allowed her police and military to engage in violent acts towards protesters, with Bolivia’s indigenous majority as the primary targets of this violence. Undemocratic practices were being fought with undemocratic practices. As of 2019, Bolivia holds a 4.84 score on the Democracy Index.
Bolivia’s recent history shows many clear-cut examples of authoritarian behavior in their various leaders. This can be seen when examining this history through Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s litmus test for Authoritarian rule. Bolvian leaders have check-marked each of the 4 tests of Authoritarian behavior. First, Morales’ act of ignoring term limits is a clear rejection of democratic rules of the game. Second, Bolivia’s government, under Anez, contacted the International Criminal Court to “file a complaint for #crimesagainsthumanity against Evo Morales,” a strong example of denying the legitimacy of political opponents by describing them as criminals. Third, Anez’ decree of military “restoration of stability” shows a clear toleration and encouragement of violence. And finally, Evo Morales’ exertion of tight control over the judiciary and opposition media shows a strong example of a leader’s readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents.
The faults and violations of both leaders have also led to strong polarization between supporters with many instances of protests against leading political parties. Polarization has often been argued to be a sign of faltering democratic principles in political science, with Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik finding that “a majority of Americans are willing to give undemocratic co-partisan a pass.” If differences and disputes between Mas and the Democrat Social Movement continued to push party polarization, democratic principles would continue to fall to the wayside. This is all to say, Bolivia has faced authoritarian behavior from its rulers for a while and clearly has shown many cracks in its democracy.
With this historical context in mind, Luis Arce’s peaceful transfer of power is a good sign of things to come, relative to Bolivia’s past democratic instability. Arce was able to completely rebound from the extreme failures of Mas last year and overcome the incumbency of interim president Jeanine Anez. Arce claimed there would be ‘no role’ for Evo Morales in his presidency. His campaign also benefited greatly from their opposition to the Democrat Social Movement’s vindictiveness against indigenous voters and the idea that the right would lead Bolivia back into a dictatorship. By actively distancing their campaign from ousted Mas party leader, Evo Morales, and the opposition led by Jean Anez, Luis Arce was able to signal a potential departure from past Authoritarian regimes. Another positive sign is the fact that peaceful protests against Mas have not been met with the violence from last year. This is important in restoring stable democracy as it departs from the previously mentioned litmus tests of promoting violence and rejecting the democratic game.
While Bolivia’s rocky history of
democratic stability could lead to doubts about its future, Luis Arce’s
peaceful transfer into power is a good sign of things to come as it signals a
departure from Authoritarian figures on both sides.
 How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Crown Books 2018
 Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review 2020
It is true as you state that Arce said that Morales would not have “any role in our government” but he did state that Morales would still be the “president of the party.” I agree with you that this peaceful transfer of power is a good sign, however, there are some recent decisions that I think should be highlighted (and of course I recognize that this came after your article was published):
Many believe that despite having free and fair elections this time, their democracy is still in jeopardy as MAS continues to centralize control over the decision-making process. On October 27, 2020, MAS legislators in the Senate used their two-thirds supermajority to make amendments before their grip expired. They enabled the Senate to pass motions with a simple majority rather than the existing two-thirds majority specified the constitution. Amendments were also made to many articles that cover motions relating to the appointment of ambassadors, judges, the censuring of parliamentarians, army proportions, changing the agenda, and exempting motions from the normal procedure. The Chamber of Deputies also saw a shift from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that in August 2020, MAS senators passed the so-called “Rooting law” which would prevent former authorities at different levels of government from leaving Bolivia for three months after the end of their mandate and surely enough the UN condemned this. Many think that Arce would be an extension of Morales undermining democracy as he had a deep connection with him through his previous financial roles. Taking into consideration how MAS has weakened the legislature, what do you think Bolivian citizens can do to stop the weakening of institutions? And what is your view of Arce in light of these recent developments?