The health of Bolivia’s democracy has fluctuated since the country’s transition to this structure of government in 1982. Ethnic inequality, economic strife, and conflicts surrounding natural resources have continuously plagued the country and paved the way for democratic backsliding. Much of this democratic backsliding is often attributed to the leadership of one incredibly influential former president, Evo Morales, who served between 2006 and 2019. Morales’ leadership, though certainly not entirely harmful to Bolivians, can be characterized by much executive aggrandizement and the many resulting effects of this trend. Assessing the health of Bolivia’s democracy during Morales’ presidency in comparison to the brief interim government that followed him and to the current administration in power offers insight into whether Morales is the true culprit of democratic erosion in Bolivia.
Morales, a member of the MAS party (Movement Towards Socialism), was elected in 2005. A former coca grower and member of the Aymara indigenous group, he vowed to make strides towards social and economic equality for the indigenous people, increase the rights of coca growers, protect the environment, and effectively capitalize on the country’s natural resources among other things. Morales fulfilled many of his promises and took steps to politically and economically empower the impoverished indigenous population. For example, the 2009 referendum ratified a new constitution, overturning the old constitution which had been designed to allow oppression of the indigenous population. The new constitution offered them opportunities for political representation and allowed for the redistribution of wealth in their favor. While the indigenous people celebrated this victory, the new constitution gained much opposition among the wealthier eastern regions. Some argued that this new constitution was divisive and authoritarian; and for good reason.
The new constitution also included an extension of term limits for Morales, allowing him to run for a second term. Those who voted on the referendum were aware that they were voting for this, so they arguably increased Morales’ power through their votes,a seemingly democratic process. However, any provision that shifts this much more power into the hands of a single executive may be considered executive aggrandizement. Furthermore, the new constitution also altered rules related to another branch of government, the judiciary. The new constitution established a three-seat Magistrate Council with the power to appoint and dismiss judges without independence. Additionally, a 2010 law deemed judges appointed before 2009 “temporary” although they were appointed with lifetime tenure at the time. These new laws put the courts at a massive risk for politicization because these three members undoubtedly maintained political agendas and used their power to advance those. One example of this can be observed in 2019 when the Magistrate Council dismissed dozens of judges arbitrarily. The membership of the council at the time consisted of a majority of Morales supporters who aimed to further his agenda by doing this. This incident resulted from Morales’ lack of respect for judicial independence as a function of democracy.
The consolidation of power into Morales’ hands did not stop there. In 2019, a ruling made by Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal declared the end of term limits for presidents. This would allow Morales to run for a fourth presidential term later that year. In most democracies, court rulings are respected and viewed as not necessarily free of ideology but free of political influence. However, it is difficult to see this decision as such because of the historical lack of independence within Bolivia’s courts. Though many protested this ruling and its implications, the ruling stood and Morales ran for a fourth term, not knowing the election would sever his political career.
The 2019 election can be viewed as the final straw of democratic backsliding under Morales’ rule. On the evening of October 21, no clear victor had emerged and the vote count appeared to stop as a runoff election seemed inevitable. The next morning, however, more votes had been tallied leaving Morales leading by a large enough margin to avoid a runoff. This sparked outrage among much of the Bolivian population and the international community as allegations of election fraud surged. The Organization of American States (OAS) noted many other issues with the election besides this clear instance of fraud such as ballot stuffing. Following this incident, Morales fled to Mexico and left Bolivia in the hands of an interim government.
Morales’ exit sent the polarized Bolivia into civil unrest as pro and anti Morales groups clashed, but the interim president, Jeanine Anez, vowed to hold another set of elections as soon as possible. May 2020 became October 2020 due to the pandemic, according to Añez. In late January 2020, however, she announced her candidacy for the presidency. While there is no proof of her immediate benefit from this, the postponement of the elections certainly allowed Anez more time to campaign. Anez´s most serious violation of democracy, however, can be found in her response to the unrest following Morales’ exit. A 471-page report from an independent human rights organization detailed extensive torture and extrajudicial killings of those opposed to the conservative interim government. Although Morales accumulated many years of anti-democratic practices, this level of abuse of the opposition was indicative of an extremist authoritarian regime, and was far more threatening to the health of Bolivia’s democracy.
Finally in October 2020, Bolivia held the free and fair election promised by Anez and elected another member of the MAS party, Luis Arce. Arce served as the economic minister under Morales during his presidency and has been credited with much of the success the Bolivian economy has experienced as it relates to his efforts to nationalize the country’s natural resources. While his victory left many concerned that he would only further Morales’ regime, Arce has been committed to a more moderate version of socialism. Though loyal to socialist ideology, Arce recognizes the polarization caused by Morales’ extreme policies and has promised to govern the country for all Bolivians. Specifically, unlike Morales, he views the courts and justice as independent from politics and has expressed his desires to rebuild judicial independence. The fate of Bolivia’s democracy is still uncertain, but Arce’s rise to power appears to be the beginning of a new era for Bolivian democracy.
Assessing the health of democracy in Bolivia under these three leaders, it is difficult to determine whether Morales was truly the cause of democratic backsliding in Bolivia. Taking into account the events that occurred under his leadership in comparison to those that occurred under Anez’s leadership, Morales seems less of a threat to democracy than Anez. One theme that both of these leaders shared, however, was their promotion of policies and practices that further polarized the country. Given the progress of Bolivia’s democracy thus far under Arce, one may speculate that his moderate ideology and desire to unite the country could be a driving factor in the improvement of democracy in Bolivia.