(AP Photo/Juan Karita)
After nearly a year in exile, former President Evo Morales returned to Bolivia on November 9th to a crowd of adoring fans at the Argentinian border. In spite of his record of authoritarian behavior in office, he remains a popular figure on the Bolivian left, especially among Indigenous Cocoa farmers. We should be worried that his enormous influence poses a great threat to the stability of Bolivian democracy, still in shock from his unconstitutional bid for a fourth term in 2019 . Unless newly elected President Arce can ease polarization and maintain his political independence, Morales will continue to erode democratic norms in the country. Unfortunately, the Bolivian electorate and ruling MAS party appear incapable of providing checks on Morales, as President Arce requires.
One facet enabling Morales’ rise to power is his use of demagogic language to polarize the public, through which he can establish control. According to authors Uribe, Cinar, and Stokes, populist politicians use harsh rhetoric against political opponents and present a Manichean worldview of good versus evil to position themselves as “moral saviors” . Morales neatly fits into this tradition. For instance, he once claimed that the press was “his main enemy” and controlled by American imperialists in response to harsh coverage of his campaign . It is important to note here that Morales sought to deny the legitimacy of his detractors by equating them with a malevolent foreign elite. This use of divisive rhetoric is an effective tactic for polarizing the electorate, which can produce loyal supporters and reduce accountability for undemocratic behavior. Current research suggests that when voters are embroiled in partisan fighting, they will either overlook or endorse anti-democratic behavior in order to defeat “evil” adversaries. One study of the American electorate found that in highly polarized societies, few voters tend to prioritize preserving democratic principles over policy wins . As a result, polarization fractures the electorate and weakens its ability to check overreaches by politicians.
The fact that there are still lingering tensions within the Bolivian electorate, even after Morales left office, raises the concern that he can manufacture a political comeback. In the past year, the interim government continued to use harsh rhetoric and engaged in undemocratic behavior to stifle opposition. Under interim President Jeanine Añez, over 100 members of Morales’ MAS party were charged with terrorist conspiracy, and journalists critical of her administration were threatened with sedition charges  . Moreover, her political allies have embraced demagogic language mirroring Morales. One rally speaker stated that “We have tied all the demons of the witchery and thrust them into the abyss. Satans, get out of Bolivia now,” speaking of the indigenous population Morales champions . In all likelihood, the undemocratic actions and divisive rhetoric of the Bolivian right are symptoms of the polarization Morales cultivated. Although Luis Arce won recent presidential elections by promising to heal political rifts, these tensions have not necessarily disappeared. Morales is in a unique position to tap into lingering resentment held by members of the MAS party who were vilified under Añez.
Despite concerns about Morales’ continued popularity and organizational prowess, many Bolivians hope that the sweeping victory of President Arce in October 2020 signals a return to democratic stability as well as a repudiation of divisive and demagogic politics. If the MAS party were to act as another check on Morales, his rise could be prevented regardless of a highly polarized electorate. Political parties, besides organizing ideological allies, also hold a gatekeeping function. Extremist outsiders cannot be welcomed into party ranks, irrespective of their popularity, in order to guard democratic institutions and culture against tampering . There is some reason to believe that President Arce and other MAS leaders are committed to this gatekeeping function, albeit I find this to be unlikely.
President Arce’s promise to remain politically independent holds some credibility considering his level of popularity and political language. According to Arce, his goal is to build “a government that is for everyone without discrimination of any kind. Our government will seek to rebuild our homeland in unity to live in peace” . This message proved very popular, garnering 55% support in the recent election. With this degree of support, Arce and other political insiders can feel assured that Morales currently lacks enough bargaining power to jeopardize their control. Moreover, precedent from other Latin American nations suggests that Arce will not necessarily remain loyal to Morales once centralizing his own power. President Moreno of Ecuador, for example, passed a referendum enforcing term limits, which effectively barred his predecessor and party leader Rafael Correa from circumventing the Constitution to run again . Ideally, Arce will follow this tradition and reject advances by Morales despite their shared history. Morales seems to recognize this degree of separation and stated that he will focus on union rights instead .
However, I believe that the actions of President Arce since taking office signal that he is not sufficiently independent from Morales as one might hope. First, Morales retains a senior role in the MAS party, even if not a member of the current administration. By neglecting to remove Morales as president of the MAS, Arce continues to provide him with a platform that he can leverage to further polarization. The air of legitimacy granted to Morales by preserving his political standing betrays a desire to utilize his popularity for political gain. If Arce were to lose support nationally or within his party, Morales could be a powerful ally to help reassert control. Additionally, Arce may be embracing the partisanship condoned by Morales for political gain. Earlier this week, the Bolivian Parliament accused President Añez of causing social unrest that killed 30 people . It is unclear whether these charges were purely intended to rectify police brutality enabled under Añez, or if they were politically motivated. Yet regardless of intentions, President Arce is not remaining vigilant in his gatekeeping duty. Embracing Morales and his demagogic language will give him legitimacy despite his authoritarian track-record, thereby harming Bolivian democratic culture. “Bolivia Election: Protests as Evo Morales Officially Declared Winner,” BBC News, October 25, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50178188  Ipek Cinar, Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe, “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 50, no.2 (April 26, 2020).  Colin Peters, “‘The Government Considers the Press an Enemy’ Says Head of Bolivian Media Freedom Organization,” International Press Institute, December 4, 2009, https://ipi.media/the-government-considers-the-press-an-enemy-says-head-of-bolivian-media-freedom-organisation/  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 114, no. 2 (April 23, 2020).  Emily Achtenberg “MAS Party Under Threat as Bolivia Moves Towards New Elections (Without Evo),” North American Congress on Latin America, January 10, 2020, https://nacla.org/blog/2020/01/10/mas-party-under-threat-bolivia-new-elections-without-evo  Anatoly Kurmanaev, “In Bolivia, Interim Leader Sets Conservative, Religious Tone,” NY Times, November 16, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/16/world/americas/bolivia-anez-morales.html  Anatoly Kurmanaev, “In Bolivia, Interim Leader Sets Conservative, Religious Tone,” NY Times, November 16, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/16/world/americas/bolivia-anez-morales.html  Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, How Democracies Die (United States: Crown Publishing Group, 2018): chapter 4.  “Luis Arce juró como nuevo president de Bolivia en el retorno del MAS al poder,” Infoabe, November 8, 2020, https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2020/11/08/luis-arce-juro-como-nuevo-presidente-de-bolivia-en-el-retorno-del-mas-al-poder/  “Ecuador Votes to Limit Presidents’ Terms in Blow to Rafael Correa,” The Guardian, February 5, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/05/ecuador-votes-to-limit-presidents-terms-in-blow-to-rafael-correa  Jihan Abdalla “Evo Morales Completes Triumphant Bolivia Return. Now What?” Aljazeera, November 11, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/11/evo-morales-is-back-in-bolivia-now-what  “Bolivia Parliament Approves Charges Against ex-Interim President,” Aljazeera, October 30, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/30/bolivia-parliament-recommends-charges-against-jeanine-anez