Democracy in crisis
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 government. To supporters of Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Morales’ resignation signified a coup d’état and overreach of military power. To his opponents, the event marked “the end of tyranny” in Bolivia. In order to understand the current state of Bolivian politics, characterized primarily by volatility and uncertainty, I first explore Morales’ complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with democracy. Hailed by some as the savior of Bolivia’s historically marginalized Indigenous population and criticized by others as a dictator-to-be, the legacy of Morales is far more nuanced than either of these narratives. 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 continuing the progress toward a more egalitarian society started by his administration?
Bolivia’s current democratic crisis began with allegations of electoral fraud in the 2019 presidential election, which eventually led to Morales’ downfall. Immediately following the election, the Organization of American States (OAS) released a report containing accusations of “intentional manipulation” and “serious irregularities,” sparking widespread unrest in Bolivia and eventually leading the country’s armed forces to demand Morales’ resignation. However, the contents of this report have been contested most notably by researchers from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and more recently by the New York Times, which has now begun to express skepticism about the integrity of the OAS report.“After the debacle of the 2019 presidential election, the military removal of Morales, and the repeated postponement of elections, Bolivian democracy lies in jeopardy.”
Following Morales’ resignation, right-wing politician Jeanine Añez assumed the role of interim president, calling for elections in May 2020 in which she would not participate. However, Añez went back on her promise to recuse herself from the election, declaring a bid for the presidency. Moreover, the interim government repeatedly delayed the 2020 election, which is now scheduled for October 18, 2020, citing the risk of coronavirus transmission, though some critics suggest that the election delays were aimed at maximizing Añez’s time in office. Although Añez has since rescinded her candidacy after an abysmal performance in the polls, it appears that the upcoming election will be bitterly fought nonetheless. After the debacle of the 2019 presidential election, the military removal of Morales, and the repeated postponement of elections, Bolivian democracy lies in jeopardy.
The legacy of Evo Morales
The key to understanding Morales’ legacy lies in the nuance and complexity surrounding the concept of “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. Others, such as Larry Diamond, believe that democracy is incomplete without a certain degree of civil and personal freedoms.1Larry Diamond, “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (April 2002): 21–35. Yet, some critics, such as Barry Gills and Joel Rocamora, believe that even this definition is insufficient, arguing that the first and foremost objective of all democratic regimes should be the pursuit of social reform and progress; to abandon these goals is to abandon the very values at the heart of democracy.2Barry Gills and Joel Rocamora, “Low Intensity Democracy,” Third World Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1992): 501–523. Drawing on Gills and Rocamora, true democracy constitutes not just an institutional structure, but an adherence to a set of broader philosophical values, chief among them, liberty and equality. Embedded within the moral aspiration of democracy, by its etymology, “a government of the people,” is a belief that hierarchy should be done away with in place of a system in which all citizens have equal agency in their own governance. Extreme social and economic inequality clash with this civic aspiration and the perpetuation of such conditions can only be seen as existing in conflict with democratic values. It is with this framework that I will examine the impact of Morales’ presidency on Bolivian democracy.“Through the erasure of checks and balances, along with the institution of laws targeting free and open discourse, Morales’ administration eroded the procedural mechanisms that are designed to ensure that the country’s leadership is accountable to the Bolivian public’s wishes.”
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. Through the erasure of checks and balances, along with the institution of laws targeting free and open discourse, Morales’ administration eroded the procedural mechanisms that are designed to ensure that the country’s leadership is accountable to the Bolivian public’s wishes. By these metrics, it appears that the Morales presidency was a period of clear democratic backsliding.
Yet, at the same time, 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 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2019, Bolivia’s GDP grew, on average, by nearly 5 percent annually, and economic inequality decreased by more than 16 points on the GINI index. The MAS government instituted a cash transfer program that has increased primary and secondary school enrollment3Carla Canelas and Miguel Niño‐Zarazúa, “Schooling and Labor Market Impacts of Bolivia’s Bono Juancito Pinto Program,” in “Welfare and Redistributive Effects of Social Assistance in the Global South,” ed. Miguel Niño‐Zarazúa, supplement, Population and Development Review 45, no. S1 (2019): 155–179. and also created financial aid programs to protect vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and the elderly. Morales has also made strides toward gender equality in the country, as demonstrated by his decision to select women for half of his initial cabinet appointments and his administration’s passage of a law that made Bolivia 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 observers. The Morales administration’s progress toward a more egalitarian society not only improved the quality of life of many Bolivians, but demonstrates a strong commitment to socio-political equality and, by extension, the moral aspirations undergirding democracy.“By framing the Morales presidency as a ‘transition to somewhere,’ rather than a linear, unilateral progression, the nature of MAS’s inconsistent relationship with democracy is made clearer.”
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. While most public discussion of the Morales legacy thus far has aimed to determine whether the Morales presidency was a period of democratic backsliding or further democratization, it should instead be characterized as both. In the context of the Arab world, Morten Valbjørn suggests that academia’s approach to the study of democratization in the region is flawed in large part due to its rigidity. Rather than attempting to categorize countries as moving to or away from democracy, Valbjørn argues that the region’s political dynamics can be more accurately represented through the concept of a “transition to somewhere.”4Morten Valbjørn, “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. This framework is valuable when applied in the Bolivian context as well, as the historic changes enacted under the Morales administration undoubtedly constitute a movement away from the neoliberal economic policies and cooperation with global financial institutions that comprise the Washington Consensus. Yet, this new political framework neither wholly reinforced nor eroded democracy, simultaneously undercutting democratic institutions and aiding in the creation of a more egalitarian society. By framing the Morales presidency as a “transition to somewhere,” rather than a linear, unilateral progression, the nature of MAS’s inconsistent relationship with democracy is made clearer.
The ascent of MAS
Why did the Morales administration simultaneously harbor such a strong commitment to socioeconomic reform and ambivalence toward democratic norms? The answer to this question lies in the historical conditions from which MAS emerged. In the two decades preceding Morales’ ascent to the presidency, the Bolivian economy was driven by neoliberal policies designed to minimize inflation in line with the Washington Consensus. The country received over ten million SDRs in loans from the IMF nearly every year between 1986 and 2001, implementing a series of domestic reforms in return. While Bolivia generally avoided the debt crises and extreme austerity measures of some of its neighbors, the IMF and World Bank did prescribe widespread privatization of industry, which has been criticized by the Bolivian left as an infringement upon the country’s sovereignty that has decreased the quality of life for the nation’s least fortunate individuals. For example, the privatization of water, as prescribed by the World Bank, raised the price of a water and sewage hookup in the city of El Alto to over half a year’s income at the minimum wage and at least doubled the cost of running water in Cochabamba for its poorest residents. Such changes put access to reliable water and sanitation services out of reach for many of the country’s poorest citizens and financially decimated many more. In the year 2000, Bolivia’s GINI coefficient reached an astronomical 61.6, the highest in the world at that time, up over 12 points on the GINI index from eight years prior. At the same time, in the US-led War on Drugs, The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was contracting paramilitary organizations to, often violently, crack down on coca production despite its cultural relevance, sowing further distrust among the country’s poor. Due in large part to neoliberal economic policy, Bolivia faced a crisis of inequality as it entered the twenty-first century.
Frustrations with neoliberal economics and foreign interference boiled over in the massive protests of the Cochabamba Water War (1999–2000) and the Bolivian Gas War (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 and exorbitant inequality 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.
The path to a more democratic Bolivia“Not only do many of the right’s political leaders, such as interim president Añez, have a history of outright racism and discrimination against the country’s majority Indigenous population, but Añez has already demonstrated authoritarian tendencies in her short time in office.”
In recognizing the democratic shortfalls of Morales and MAS, it would be misleading to characterize Bolivia’s right-wing establishment politicians as models of liberal democracy. Not only do many of the right’s political leaders, such as interim president Añez, have a history of outright racism and discrimination against the country’s majority Indigenous population, but Añez has already demonstrated authoritarian tendencies in her short time in office. Within a week of assuming the presidency, she authorized federal troops to fire on protesters and has since arrested political opponents on trumped-up charges. Additionally, the Añez administration has repeatedly postponed the 2020 presidential election and a group on the Bolivian right, led by Luis Fernando Camacho, a close ally of Añez and current presidential candidate, has attempted to ban MAS from participating in the upcoming election over a manufactured technicality.
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 Luis Fernando Camacho’s deeply religious and reactionary platform, Carlos Mesa’s return to neoliberal “democracy,” and MAS candidate Luis Arce’s Morales-inspired neo-developmentalism, none of which demonstrate a clear path toward stable democracy. Camacho has drawn comparisons to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro for his extreme views on religion and has already demonstrated an affinity for illiberalism and ambivalence toward democratic norms in his support for the Añez government. Mesa has eschewed the social illiberalism of much of the Bolivian right, instead advocating for a return to strong procedural democracy and the Washington Consensus. While this proposition may appear attractive, one must not forget that neoliberal economics were the primary cause of Bolivia’s exorbitant inequality in the early 2000s and sparked the protests that brought an end to Mesa’s first presidential term. Finally, it is uncertain if Arce, the current frontrunner with a policy platform very similar to that of Morales, would demonstrate the same disregard for procedural democracy as his predecessor.“It is up to Bolivia’s next president to synthesize these two political values, continuing Morales’ legacy of socioeconomic reform while repairing the democratic institutions undercut by his administration.”
Hopefully, the progress toward a more just society made under the Morales administration will culminate in a stronger civil society and a populace that will reject antidemocratic politics moving forward. However, as long as democratic reform and commitment to socioeconomic progress remain mutually exclusive, it appears unlikely that a path toward 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.”5Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “Fateful Alliances,” in How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 11–33. It is up to Bolivia’s next president to synthesize these two political values, continuing Morales’ legacy of socioeconomic reform while repairing the democratic institutions undercut by his administration. Only then will Bolivia have attained a solid foundation upon which to build a resilient liberal democracy oriented toward the betterment of society at large.
Banner image: Cancillería del Ecuador/Flickr.