Bolivia: Coup or Uprising?

Matthias Peschke
Nov 20, 2019 · 8 min read

Morales was ousted from power in what many describe as a military or civic coup. The military has publicly asked for his resignation on Sunday after weeks of civil unrest following severe irregularities at the presidential elections on 20 October. Since then, the country has seen a wave of violence between supporter of Morales and the opposition. Morales’ camp asserts that the military is threatening and going after members of the MAS (Movimiento para el Socialism) party while others counter that pro-Morales supporters were using violence to end the peaceful demonstrations that asked for new elections. Many left-wing politicians, academics, intellectuals across the globe have immediately come forward in support of Morales and his administration condemning the actions of the military as yet another undemocratic coup with US support against a successful leftist government.

In fact, there are legitimate concerns that what happened may be a foreign backed plot. Historically, the military on the Latin-American continent has been largely in favour of right-wing governments with only very few exceptions. With Lula out of prison, anti-austerity protests in Ecuador and Kirchner returning to power as Vice President of Argentina, it seemed that critics of neoliberalism were on the rise. Overthrowing a long-term leftist government in Bolivia, which has vast natural gas and lithium reserves, would, therefore, be in the interest of the US which is known for having carried out numerous coups against such governments in the region. The sudden resignation of several high-ranking ministers, the removal of Morales from power and the interim presidency being awarded to the opposition are seen as evidence that Bolivia’s democracy is being tampered with by undemocratic forces.

Nevertheless, there is also a different story progressives across the world are quick to dismiss. A story that shows a president whose idealistic commitment has faded and whose disdain for democratic institutions has steadily weakened the support among his base. Having received wide-spread acclaim for his progressive policies that included reducing poverty, redistributing natural gas wealth and advocating for the rights of the indigenous people, Morales achieved among the highest economic growth rates in the region while also keeping a balanced national budget. Furthermore, his strong stance on environmental protection (‘Pachamama’) raised the ecological awareness among Bolivians and curbed the excesses of previous administrations. As a result, he got re-elected twice, each time with more than 60% of the vote giving the country much needed political stability.

In 2019, chances were good that he would win a third re-election as he was leading Carlos Mesa by a comfortable margin before the electoral commission went dark. 24 hours later, Morales had won and what was a comfortable margin became a landslide eliminating the need for a run-off. What ensued was a country-wide protest claiming fraud and demanding new elections. But how did it come to this?

The EVOlution of Morales

Once hailed as a beacon of hope for a notoriously unstable and impoverished nation, the former coca farmer started to concentrate power and failed to follow through with many of his ambitious goals. He attacked the independence of the judiciary on several occasions and managed to pack the courts with loyal supporters which he justified by saying that an independent judiciary is nothing but an imperial doctrine of the US [1]. Moreover, he issued a decree allowing him to dissolve civil society organisations giving him the opportunity to interfere with their work by accusing them of conspiring against the government [2].

Furthermore, he reversed his stance on environmental protection which can be illustrated by two examples. First, just like his Brazilian counterpart, he refused to deal with the Amazon fires started by local farmers to create more farmland and did not accept the foreign aid he was offered. Second, he vigorously initiated to build a super highway directly through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory against the concerns of indigenous people who accused him of being in favour of capitalism and extractivism [3].

What ultimately caused the barrel to overflow were his attempts to extend his rule indefinitely through constitutional changes. Introduced in 2006, the two-term limit was put into the constitution by an assembly controlled by his own party. With his first re-election in 2009, he contended that he was eligible for yet another term in 2014 as the constitutional changes were established after he first came into office. Soon after, he made it clear that he would scrap the term limits for good by holding a legally-binding referendum on the issue. As many Bolivians expected further abuses of power, his proposal got rejected. Unfortunately, he did not accept the result of the plebiscite and doubled down by taking the issue to the Supreme Court. As mentioned earlier, due to his influence on the judiciary, he was able to get a favourable verdict which cited that his human rights would be violated by the term limits making him eligible for an indefinite number of re-elections.

Against this backdrop, it is understandable that the race for a fourth term would be much tighter than in previous elections. Morales had become a real politician who realised that in order to finance his progressive policies, he had to sacrifice some of the promises that brought him into office. In combination with the fraudulent election and his tendency to concentrate power, many Bolivians wanted a change. In fact, many were looking at the preliminary results optimistically as they were sure Morales could not avoid a run-off. With less than 20% of the vote still to count and a lead of only a couple of points, it was clear for many that Morales would not reach the necessary threshold to be confirmed as president. Nonetheless, once the blackout was over, he emerged victorious with enough votes to avoid a second round.

The opposition just as large parts of the electorate immediately declared foul play and did not accept the outcome leading to weeks of protests against Morales and his party. Once the OAS published its report, which found clear manipulations of electoral proceedings, large parts of society including universities and parts of disenchanted indigenous people took to the streets and demanded the resignation which followed the same day.

We are, thus, not talking about a military coup because part of such an act is the forceful removal of a sitting president and the assumption of power by the coup leaders. Instead, the legislative bodies are still in charge and an interim president has been chosen whose main task will be to arrange new elections.

Under normal circumstances, this position would have gone to a member of MAS but the many resignations have left an opponent of Morales in charge. While defenders of Morales say this is evidence for a civic coup taking place, there is also another possibility, namely, that the ministers have left their positions fearing prosecution for possible involvement in manipulating the elections, for which the pending investigation could send them to prison. According to this narrative, Morales’ resignation was not necessarily caused by the military but rather by the fact that his allies left him no choice.

The Rules of the Game matter

As a progressive and an early supporter of Morales and the Pink Tide, I strongly sympathise with the progressive policies that improved the lives of many Bolivians over the last decade and a half. Nevertheless, I consider adherence to constitutional procedures an essential aspect of a functioning democracy. Even though I am in favour of free healthcare, free public transportation, universal basic income and free education, I know one can only get there if the rules of the game are followed. Sure this game might favour the wealthy and powerful who have more resources to implement laws that benefit themselves. But if one does not adhere to basic rules set out in the constitution, how can this be expected of anyone else?

As a matter of fact, the democratic process is often very frustrating and one has to observe how little progress is being made with respect to important issues such as climate change, digitisation or fighting poverty. However, establishing an authoritarian regime that cannot be held accountable by its citizens is not the solution.

The only way forward for policymakers in Bolivia and other countries in the region is by accepting constrains on power, stop focusing on individual leadership and allowing for peaceful transitions of power. Morales would have won the election without fraud and probably even the run-off as the opposition is deeply divided. One would also think that among his party there would be a candidate able to run for president and continue the work of Morales, yet, 13 years and 9 months into his rule, Morales himself appeared to be the only one able to run for president in his party. Even if he had lost the election, giving up power for a term does not exclude you from politics. In fact, it gives you time to restructure and maybe reposition yourself on some issues in order to come back stronger and retake power at the next election.

Unfortunately, there are many things holding Latin-American countries back. Apart from having to deal with geographical constraints, its colonial history established extractive institutions that were continued by those who took over from the colonialists. This has made Latin-America the most unequal region in the world resulting in systemic corruption and a highly polarised society [4]. Together with decades of foreign influence and several American-backed coups in countries that ran counter to US interests, the political climate has not been able to find a balance.

Presidential democracies are not helping the cause as the nature of presidentialism propagates a winner-take-all mentality centred around one individual. Unlike parliamentary democracies, where several parties have to work with each other in order to form a stable government, presidential systems separate the executive power from the legislature making cross-party cooperation less necessary and electoral losses more painful.

In this light, it is understandable why Morales sought to accumulate more power. There were many before him who went through the same process and it is likely that he will not be the last. One thing is clear, the situation is not going to improve through repeated violations of the constitution because the rules of the game matter in liberal democracies.

[1] Infobae (2017): Evo Morales: “La independencia de poderes es una doctrina norteamericana”. Article accessible here.

[2] Análisis Latino (2017): Bolivia y derechos humanos: una evaluación de la era Evo Morales. Article accessible here.

[3] The Guardian (2017): Bolivia approves highway through Amazon biodiversity hotspot. Article accessible here.

[4] Acemoglu, Darran/Robinson, James (2012): Why Nations Fail. New York: Crown Publishers.

Matthias Peschke

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I have a background in international relations and my main interests are AI and its effect on society, foreign affairs and backsliding democracies.

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