Tensions in Latin America heighten as Bolivia’s President Evo Morales steps down

By Jamie Domer

BOLOGNA, Italy – On November 10, Evo Morales resigned as President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Following accusations of fraudulent elections and over two weeks of violent protests in major Bolivian cities Santa Cruz, La Paz, and Cochabamba, the Bolivian armed forces turned their backs on Morales and formally requested his resignation. Morales, Vice-President Alvaro García, and Senate president Adriana Salvatierra – all members of Morales’ Movimiento para el Socialismo (MAS, or Movement for Socialism) – also resigned. 

Per Bolivian law, Jeanine Áñez of the opposition Movimiento Demócrata Social (Social Democracy Movement) assumed the interim presidency. Bolivian law states that presidential operations must not be suspended, and whomever is next in succession should assume the presidency ipso facto; that is, without the need to have a quorum. The interim president, in conjunction with congress, must call elections within 90 days. Despite the three above-named vacancies, MAS still holds a legislative majority. Bolivia must also elect new members to the Electoral Supreme Court, as the previous members were arrested and accused of fraud.

Soon after the reshuffle, violent protests calling for Áñez’s resignation occurred in the streets, and controversy emerged surrounding her interim government. She has been accused of bringing religion into politics and arresting political enemies. On Wednesday, November 20, the interim government initiated the first phase of the new electoral process by sending a proposal to Parliament. Áñez promised that Bolivia will have a new government by January 22, 2020, the day Bolivia celebrates officially becoming a plurinational state. However, SAIS Professor Jacqueline Mazza noted that “this is an extremely perilous time for Bolivia where we do not see a strengthening from the center that is necessary to lead the country towards a more stable and democratic path…both the supporters of Morales and the military need to support a democratic and peaceful path out of the crisis rather than antagonize opposition forces and inflame tensions raising worries about an anti-democratic outcome.”

The rise and fall of Evo Morales

In 2006, Morales became the first indigenous president of a country in which over 60% of the population is indigenous. During his first term, he altered the constitution to allow for a president to run for a second term. The new constitution was approved in 2009, the same year in which he won his second term and governed until 2014. In 2014, Morales announced that he would not seek reelection for what would have been his third term. However, he later filed an appeal claiming that he should be able to run because his first term did not count, as it was under the previous constitution. He ultimately reneged on his previous commitment not to run and won reelection. In 2016, during his third term, Morales held a referendum appealing to Bolivians to approve the possibility of a fourth consecutive term. Despite losing the 2016 referendum claiming he would respect its result, Morales ran for a fourth term in October 2019.

Morales claimed victory despite not being legally eligible to run for office. Allegations of fraud emerged on the night of the election, and protestors took to the streets. To win the presidency in Bolivia, a candidate must either receive 50% of the vote or 40% of the vote with 10% more than the closest opponent. Bolivia runs on a two-count system: there is a quick count, which has no legal bearing, and then an overall count when all the votes are tallied.

The Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body comprised of the countries of the Americas (except Cuba) sent an electoral mission to monitor the election, as is typical for the organization to do. Following the election, the mission released a report that called attention to several procedural irregularities. Morales allowed a team of OAS auditors to audit the election and results. The subsequent report concluded that there were irregularities in both the voter count and technical systems of the election, claiming “flawed transmission systems for preliminary elections results and the final count” and “forged signatures and alteration of tally sheets.” This sparked protests and violence that caused at least 17 deaths.

Following the report and the protests, both the police and the armed forces turned their backs on Morales. The commander of the military, Williams Kaliman, publicly suggested that Morales resign. Shortly after, he did.

What does Morales’ resignation mean for Bolivia’s future?  

Under Morales, MAS controlled “practically” everything: state agencies, the executive, the assembly, judicial power and electoral power. Speaking to the Observer, SAIS Professor Benjamin Gedan explained, “They abide by the law when it’s convenient. There’s pressure on those who are critical of the government. There’s no censorship like there is with Chavismo [Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela], but there are other indirect forms of pressure. There’s pressure against the political opposition.”

It bears noting, however, that Morales maintains strong support throughout the country.

“MAS retains significant public support in part because of Bolivia’s relatively strong economic performance under Evo. Though much of the Bolivian public has soured on Evo, any government that seeks to marginalize MAS politically and repress its supporters will not be successful and will create conditions that lead to Evo’s return to power,” said SAIS Professor Benjamin Gedan.

Implications for the region?

Bolivia is not the first South American country to confront large-scale protests in 2019. Protests related to a host of issues, ranging from government reform to retracted fuel subsidies to public transportation fee hikes, have swept through Colombia, Ecuador, and Chile. Although many protests are domestic in nature, common themes are apparent. South Americans have grown tired of dated institutions. They are unhappy with low income and low employment levels and they have, broadly, lost faith in leadership. Bolivia is only the latest example of a South American country plagued by political division and economic uncertainty.