In a continent that is growing increasingly conflictive, few were paying attention to what was quietly developing in Bolivia. Tension reached its apex last week, when Evo Morales was dramatically ousted from power and pushed into exile after an election whose transparency was questioned by the opposition and the Organization of American States (OAS).
Morales, the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history, led a period of strong economic growth and poverty reduction, winning re-election by comfortable margins in a country where presidential instability has been the norm.
But Bolivia’s political divide grew stronger since his decision to run for a fourth term despite losing a referendum on that issue. When the opposition candidate Carlos Mesa rejected the validity of the presidential results last month, unrest grew to the point of nation-wide police mutinies and street protests surrounding unguarded government buildings. Under military and police pressure, Morales and his vice-president Álvaro García Linera resigned and fled to Mexico, denouncing they were victims of a coup.
A controversial election
In October 20, more than 5 million Bolivians had turned to the ballots to elect their next President and lawmakers. The two main candidates were Carlos Mesa from the centrist Civic Community coalition and the incumbent Evo Morales of the MAS party. But this was no ordinary election: it was preceded by a heated dispute over the legality of Morales’ bid for re-election and opposition protests across the country.
According to official results MAS won by 47.08% to 36.51%, slightly above the 10% difference required by the constitution to avoid a runoff. However, the Civic Community challenges this result, pointing to an only 7% difference seen in the provisional recount at a point in which it was suddenly halted with more than 80 percent of the votes counted.
Carlos Mesa was quick to denounce irregularities. So were OAS auditors, who concluded in their preliminary report that they cannot “validate the result” due to “manipulations of the IT system”, therefore recommending “another electoral process”. The OAS report argued that they saw reason for suspicion in the way Morales’ margin of victory was extended to more than 10 percent since the halt took place.
The MAS camp said this could be explained by the increased support for Morales in rural areas, whose ballots are usually counted last, and that a second recount done through a different system gave similar results to the provisional one. The OAS, meanwhile, added that the software used for the recount was untested and unsecured, and that at least 78 tally sheets showed signs of manipulation, including 100% participation with 100% of votes going for Morales in some of them.
When the OAS preliminary audit was published, Morales offered an election re-run. But this wasn’t enough to please the incremental demands of an opposition that had its own internal pressures. On one hand, the number of street protests was rising, and a police mutiny was spreading to most departments; on the other, the Civic Community may be too large to hold together until the next election. Carlos Mesa himself was subject to criticisms by some of his allies, mainly the so called “civic committees”.
These committees are citizen organizations that articulate local interests, comprised of parochial figures, professional associations and businessmen. The Santa Cruz department committee bears especial relevance given its economic power. It is headed by Luis Fernando Camacho, an outsider to politics, who is critical of the established politicians like Mesa, yet supported him in this election. Many credit him and other hardliners for rallying the votes Mesa needed to thwart a first-round Morales victory.
The opposition swayed between different demands. These ranged from calling for a second round, to a complete re-run of the election, to ultimately suspending Morales’ candidacy. By the 10th of November, with rising street violence against government targets amid a police mutiny that was now in full force, the chief of the Army issued a communiqué suggesting the President should resign. Morales denounced this as a coup attempt. For his detractors however, he was just another populist leader using tricks to cling onto power.
The region is no strange to controversies about re-elections. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa governed for three consecutive terms from 2007 to 2017. In Nicaragua Daniel Ortega, acting president since 2007, secured a third period in 2017 which will make him the longest serving president of the country by the time it concludes in 2022. And then there’s Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez ruled from 1999 to 2013, followed by Nicolás Maduro from then on. All of them managed to stay in power after constitutional reforms and judicial rulings.
Bolivia itself has seen its share of controversy in the last decade. After winning the 2005 elections, Evo Morales faced a vote of confidence referendum in 2008, which he won. 2009 saw two more elections: a constitutional reform in January that enabled re-election among other amendments, and a presidential vote in December where Morales was re-elected.
The rise in popularity of MAS and Morales didn’t go uncontested, especially in the Eastern part of the country. The Santa Cruz department is not only an economic powerhouse inside Bolivia, but also a stronghold of the opposition, footing on a largely middle class population and a wealthy elite. It was this department, along with Beni, Pando and Tarija, which held autonomy referendums against the central government in 2008, followed by strikes, unrest and clashes that caused several deaths.
In 2014 the argument about re-election was revived when Evo Morales ran for President again, after the Supreme Court ruled that his first period did not count towards terms limits since it was previous to the constitutional reform of 2009.
By 2016, a second constitutional referendum took place to authorize two consecutive re-elections. This amendment was rejected by a narrow margin (51% to 49%) to the relief of the opposition parties and Carlos Mesa, the former president (2003-2005) who was coming back to politics after a decade of keeping a low profile. This result would also become the central argument for the Civic Community in the current crisis.
So when Evo Morales decided to run for a second re-election in 2019 regardless (authorized by a Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruling) the opposition parties rallied around the 2016 referendum results and suspicions were growing even among MAS supporters, giving political momentum to street protestors. Morales just didn’t enjoy the 60% plus approval of previous elections anymore.
A booming decade
Despite its political controversies, the thirteen-year administration of Evo Morales can show significant achievements in the economic front. Bolivia’s 1980-2005 stagnation in the real GDP per capita was overturned, leading to a 50% increase in the 2006-2018 period. It was an impressive economic feat that doubled the region’s averages according to IMF figures, and didn’t slow down as sharply as its neighbors in the last years.
The 2006 nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry was resisted in the Eastern half of the country and Mesa himself was a vocal opponent. But it didn’t take long before it brought massive revenues due to the increase in production as well as the rise of energy prices that lasted until 2015. This also meant that Bolivia now held large international reserves to uphold a stable exchange rate and pursue developmental policies.
Sustained cash transfers matched with redistributive policies led to a reduction in poverty (from 60% in 2006 to 35% in 2018) and extreme poverty (from 37% to 15%). Inflation spiked in 2007 and 2008 with almost 12% but initiated a downward trend to 1,5% in 2018.
Critics, however, point to a growing fiscal and current account deficit since 2015, leading to high state indebtedness and worries about how sustainable these economic achievements will prove. The persistent capital flight and the concentration of exports by sector (energy) and destination (Argentina and Brazil) also pose a challenge to the Bolivian economy.
In any case, the rise in living standards is one of the reasons why Morales remains popular, especially among his base in the country’s west and in poor and rural regions. Since his ousting, the other half of the country has risen in protest, with multiple deaths reported, most of them at the hands of the armed forces. Although calls for a new election are now being discussed, it remains to be seen whether a return to normal civic life is possible in an increasingly distressed country.