Over the last two decades, Bolivian democracy has been routinely attacked and undermined by its leftist government. While many have protested the authoritarian actions of the ruling party, a majority of Bolivians seem to accept the loss of democracy in exchange for economic opportunities that have not been present under previous administrations. The case of Bolivia presents a prime example of how historically marginalized communities rallied around a populist message may vote in their economic interests at the expense of democracy.
In October of 2019 an opposition group in Bolivia took advantage of some localized discontent with authoritarian trends in the ruling party, and tried to seize power through a military coup. Despite the authoritarian behaviors of those involved in the coup, it effectively re-established faith in elections and reinstated some of the horizontal checks that had withered over the previous decade. As a result, the outcome of Bolivia’s October 2020 election was widely respected both domestically and internationally. The coup, however, did not protect democracy. The newly elected president, Luis Arce, has now reverted to similar techniques of democratic undermining that created the conditions for the coup in the first place. “I think the Bolivian people want to retake the path we were on,” said Arce in his victory speech, referring to the path set by former president Evo Morales during his time in office from 2004-2019.
Despite outwardly, and often unpopular, authoritarian behaviors from Evo Morales, support for him, and even more so for his party, remained relatively high throughout his fourteen years in office. The core of his support came from populations that had previously been left out of government. Elected with a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America around the turn of the century, Morales quickly showed that he would follow through on his populist platform, especially emphasizing protections for his many rural, poor, and indigenous supporters. Morales used his background as an indigenous llama herder to appeal to the scores of Bolivians who shared similar stories. He routinely wore brightly colored traditional alpaca herding clothes to signal his connection to ‘the people’ and used anti-elite rhetoric to rally his supporters to mobilize in his mission to rid the government of those who would be sympathetic to the aims of the Global North.
The indigenous communities within Bolivia, which account for as much as 75% of the population, were severely marginalized and heavily underrepresented in government throughout much of the 20th century. This routinely resulted in the economic exploitation of the rural communities by neoliberal trading policies that benefited wealthier districts with greater numbers of people of direct European descent.
Morales vowed to change that. A trend towards lower income inequality during Morales’ time in office suggests that he did just that, and much of the former lower class now may be classified as middle class. This means that these populations may now have more at stake in maintaining the status quo, and their political power and relevance has been increased. At the same time, a process of nationalizing major industries took away great power from domestic and international elites, helping to curb the impact of oligarchical interests on the government. Even with the loss of neoliberal business policies that tend to boost economic stats, during Morales’ time in office Bolivia’s GDP per capita almost doubled even after adjusting for inflation. With less elite interests in politics, and a mass of people now content with the status quo, most Bolivians looked away as Morales began an executive coup by packing the supreme court and overruling the constitutional term limits.
While gains towards equity were occurring, Morales’ government was quickly hurtling towards greater levels of authoritarianism; yet it still maintained widespread support. A new constitution, passed under Morales’ administration in 2009, was designed to give Morales’ party an edge in politics; and was approved by 65% of the population in a referendum. Morales used this constitution to declare all pre-2009 judiciaries as “temporary,” as they were not representative of the peoples’ will. His administration then fired scores of judges whose decisions did not align with the administration’s. Human rights organizations have claimed this behavior has made members of the judiciary afraid to stray from the line passed down by Morales, destroying any check the judiciary may have on the executive or legislative branch. Morales would later challenge this popular constitution and claim that the term limits it set were a violation of his human right to continue to run for office. A referendum to change the term limits was shot down by the general public, but Morales chose to run anyway and still came out as the front runner. While Morales’ approval ratings fluctuated drastically, dropping to 41% in 2011 during the height of his judicial purge, but rebounding to 70% as the economic situation continued to improve, a steady trend in Bolivian opinion was beginning to reveal itself. The number of Bolivians who “prefer democracy over any other type of government” has steadily fallen from a high of 71% in 2009, shortly after the new constitution was implemented, to a low of 53% immediately before the 2019 election. It appears that despite discontent with Morales’ circumventing of the constitution, people would continue to support him so long as they kept seeing results. In other words, the short-term dissatisfactions they faced with the government’s authoritarianism were a worthy cost to continue on the path to equity and freedom from exploitative economic policies.
In 2019, Bolivia erupted in protest following the disputed results of its presidential election. The election had concluded that incumbent president Evo Morales had won with 47% of the vote, just 0.5% above the necessary 46.5% required to prevent a one-on-one runoff election with his closest opponent, independent Carlos Mesa. Morales called on his supporters to counter protest, even arming them in some cases. The crackdown was brutal, and after 21 days of at times deadly clashes between protesters and counter protesters, the Bolivian military turned on Evo Morales, who stepped down and fled to Mexico. Right-wing Christian senator Jeanine Áñez assumed the presidency, pitching herself as a savior of democracy.
While the United States, UK, and many conservative Latin American governments immediately recognized this new government as legitimate, many Bolivians were less convinced. To many of Morales’ supporters, and many supporters of independent parties, Áñez represented the rich, urban, Christian, and European groups that had had a hold on Bolivian politics for centuries. Áñez quickly attempted to appeal to the international community by announcing its plans to create an independent election oversight committee and encouraged a new wave of independent judges to be appointed. Because of these actions, some groups credit her with the slight shift towards democratizing behaviors tracked in the last few years with Bolivia moving up from a 63 to a 68 on the Freedom House Index.
Áñez also certainly engaged in authoritarian behaviors, but they often mirrored the norms of crackdowns on protests and legislative sidelining that Morales himself had established. These actions were met with harsh criticism and protests across the country, primarily by supporters of Morales.
After a year, relatively free and fair elections were held, and Morales’ party, now led by Luis Arce, won in a landslide. As Arce promised in his campaign, he is continuing Morales’ methods, going so far as to arrest Áñez and others who led opposition movements against Morales. Even while jailing his opposition and undermining the systems put in place to establish fair elections, his approval rating hovers over 50% and the civil unrest in the country has largely quieted down. This seems to suggest that authoritarian behavior in Bolivia is not the driving force of unrest, but, rather, the struggle between the interests of the elites and the masses is the driving factor. Now that power has been restored to the masses, and the elites once again deprived of the tools to fight back, Bolivia’s government may slip back into a path towards an autocratic populist regime, but also continue on a path towards equity and reparations.
I think that the example presented in your introduction highlights a promissory coup and how they most often ultimately do not result in democratic institutions being restored. What is interesting to me in this example is that the coup organizers in this case appeared to actually want to transition to more democratic elections and away from the authoritarian trends of the ruling party as you described.