Deciphering the Deterioration of Democracy

Bolivia tries to navigate its way to a legitimate presidential election and be a stable nation

By Breanna Beers

While Americans were fighting over whether to impeach their president, Bolivians went ahead and ousted theirs.

On Oct. 20, 2019, Bolivia held a presidential election. Three months later, the country still lacks a democratically elected executive. In the associated protests, 33 people have been killed, over 800 wounded, and more than 1,500 arrested.

Evo Morales of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party was inaugurated in 2006 as Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Re-elected in 2009 and 2014, Morales’ government saw the nationalization of the oil and gas industries, redistribution of state and private property to indigenous families, cash transfer programs to encourage children to stay in school and pregnant mothers to visit hospitals, monthly pensions for the elderly, and a new constitution in 2009 that established a two-term limit for the office of the president. During his 14 years in office, Morales’ policies brought an average GDP growth of 4.8% per year and cut the national poverty rate in half.

However, said international studies professor Dr. Glen Duerr, “the problem with this line of policymaking is that it pits groups against each other in a society, and also disincentivizes external investment. Bolivia has remained very poor under Morales.”

In 2016, Morales held a public referendum to amend the constitution to abolish the term limits he had supported back in 2009. The public struck down the amendment, but Morales’ allies on the Constitutional Tribunal (comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court) overturned this result, ruling that preventing someone from running indefinitely was a violation of his or her human rights.

Thanks to this ruling, Morales was able to run for his fourth straight term in October 2019. After the transmission of election results was inexplicably paused for 24 hours, Morales was declared the winner, prompting protests of illegitimacy in Bolivia and drawing international attention.

In response, Morales invited an audit by the Organization of American States (OAS), an international body that monitors elections in North and South America, and agreed to abide by its decision. On Nov. 10, the OAS declared the Oct. 2019 election invalid and called for a new election with new officials.

Upon this announcement, protesters demanded that Morales instead resign the presidency immediately and be barred from running again. The head of the Bolivian Armed Forces also asked Morales to step down, despite the constitutional prohibition of military involvement in politics. By the end of the day, Morales and several of his allies had resigned from office and left the country. Morales’ supporters called it a coup; his opponents declared it a victory for democracy.

The next in line for the presidency, once most of Morales’ major allies stepped down, was Senate opposition leader Jeanine Añez, who quickly assumed the office of interim presidency until new elections could be held. However, her appointment was controversial.

Senate president and MAS member Adriana Salvatierra preceded Añez in the line of constitutional succession. While Salvatierra had submitted her resignation on Nov. 10, Congress did not confirm her resignation and elect a new Senate president, MAS’s Mónica Eva Copa, until Nov. 14.

In the intervening gap, Añez obtained the approval of the Senate and the Constitutional Tribunal on Nov. 12. However, the session was not attended by MAS party members, who hold a majority of Congress, meaning that the required minimum number of officials was not achieved for Añez to be legally appointed. Despite this, Añez was quickly recognized as acting president by Brazil, the European Union, Russia and the United States, among others.

Añez promised new elections on May 3, 2020, but has wasted no time implementing her own policies in the meantime. Añez dramatically shifted Bolivia’s foreign policy, expelling Cuban officials, establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S., and breaking ties with Nicolás Maduro to support rival Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

Meanwhile, MAS supporters have been conducting mass protests demanding Añez’s resignation. On Nov. 14, just two days into her administration, Añez granted security forces immunity from all criminal charges, allowing them to do whatever they deemed necessary to maintain order. The next day, enforcement officials fired on protesters in Cochabamba, resulting in nine deaths and dozens of injuries. Though the government denies responsibility for the casualties, the decree was later repealed after condemnation from multiple human rights agencies.

In December, state prosecutors issued a warrant for Morales’ arrest on charges of sedition and terrorism, based on video evidence in which a voice the state claims is Morales ordering road blockages, a common form of protest in Latin America. Meanwhile, Morales continues to speak into Bolivian politics from his exile in Argentina, and protests against Añez’s government are ongoing.

The turmoil in Bolivia follows what has become an unfortunate pattern for Latin American populist leaders; see the ongoing examples of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Credible elections are undermined by irregularities as popular leaders push for more power. In many Latin American countries, including Bolivia, democracy hasn’t been around long enough to stabilize. The next few years may determine whether it ever will.

Breanna Beers is a junior Molecular and Cellular Biology major and the campus news editor for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting “The Princess Bride” whether it’s relevant or not.

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