Evo Morales, Bolivia’s leftist indigenous president, resigned Sunday and has fled the country for Mexico, unseated by nationwide protests over the presidential election. This election, as Santiago Anria and Jennifer Cyr explained here at TMC, was controversial for two reasons. First, Morales ignored constitutional term limits and ran for his fourth consecutive term, even though he’d lost a national referendum to lift those limits. Second, election auditors found evidence of electoral fraud.
So why are Bolivia’s protests continuing? Bolivians are in the streets to try to defend the democratic institutions that Morales remade over 13 years. To understand what’s at stake, it is helpful to draw distinctions between the country’s democratic institutions and Morales’s personal style of rule, which endangered the very institutions he championed.
Protests swept Morales into office long before they took him out
Throughout his presidency, Morales implemented social policies that aligned with the demands of the social movements that got him elected. He nationalized the gas industry to secure a greater share of the profits for the country, which helped double social spending and fund social service and infrastructure projects, all aimed at closing the gap between the rich and the poor while fostering economic growth. He launched rural development protects that included new schools to expand access to education and giving farmers access to more markets, both internationally and domestically, which bolstered income and food security. According to the World Bank, during his tenure, poverty and inequality fell.
Morales changed the rules of the game
Bolivian politics post-Morales will be different from politics pre-Morales. His first act as president was to form a constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution that radically extended political and social rights — such as equal access to water, work, health, education and housing — to historically marginalized groups, while offering indigenous autonomy and land rights. The Bolivian government stopped referring to itself as a “republic,” which had given wealthy elites tremendous power, and began calling itself a “plurinational state,” emphasizing the fact that the country includes a wide range of ethnic groups, with indigenous peoples alone making up almost half the population.
Through this process, Morales created one of the world’s most socially inclusive constitutions. For example, 39 indigenous languages are recognized as official state languages alongside Spanish, meaning that no one can be denied a ballot or social services for not speaking Spanish, and that public schools teach in indigenous languages.
The constitution also changed the political rules to empower minorities and enable more direct democracy. At the national level, the legislature now has reserved seats for indigenous representatives. National referendums can amend the constitution, a mechanism Morales used to try to stay in office beyond designated term limits. Citizens can recall public servants through referendums. At the local level, the constitution increased the power of local rural communities governed by native rural and peasant organizations, even granting them political and judicial autonomy to apply cultural values and norms to the way they govern and judicial autonomy over agrarian and natural resource issues.
A 2014 electoral law put in place a legislative gender quota, requiring that 50 percent of each political party’s list be women. While many Latin American nations have gender quotas, Bolivia’s legislature includes the largest proportion of women in the region — and, since 2014, even has a female legislative majority.
Over time, Morales began undermining his own popular agenda and institutions
As his presidency continued, however, Morales began shifting his attention from institutional reform to his own power, undermining his initial agenda. In 2011, Morales turned his back on indigenous groups by proposing to build a road through a national park they held sacred. He ran a 2016 national referendum to extend term limits so he could run for a fourth term — but a narrow loss revealed that his popularity was fading. Morales also tightened his control over judicial appointments, eroding important checks and balances.
Finally, he ran for president again — after securing a court ruling that allowed his bid. And while protests had put him in office, they now removed him from office.
Is this a constitutional crisis?
So why do protests continue? Morales, his base and his leftist political allies argue that Morales is the victim of a coup, because police joined the protests and the military’s commander “suggested” he step down. Others reject this, saying the military did not actively intervene. However, Bolivian and international newspapers are reporting fires, ransacking and chaos in La Paz and other parts of the country, with confrontations between Morales supporters and those who contested the election results. Social media and Spanish-language media report that anti-Morales protesters are burning the Wiphala flag, a symbol of indigenous pride and identity. These protests show how deeply divided Bolivia is, not only over the recent election but also over whether Morales’s “plurinational” approach should endure.
The constitution mandates that when a president resigns, an election is to be held within 90 days. Morales’s opponents want to take power. The interim president, Jeanine Áñez, has been such a fierce critic of Morales that his party failed to appear for the parliamentary session that was to appoint her. Without a quorum, she declared herself president — a move endorsed by the country’s constitutional tribunal.
How might the opposition try to undo Morales’s institutional reforms?
In broad terms, Morales’s opponents represent large swaths of the country’s eastern region and the economic elite, including portions of the middle class. His early opponents contested the constitutional constituent assembly, and will likely want to reverse the constitution. However, Morales’s MAS party still holds the most seats in the legislature, suggesting continued support for his political agenda. Additionally, some indigenous groups joined calls for his resignation — suggesting that some who were concerned by this presidential election reject Morales but not the institutions he leaves behind. This group will likely continue to resist attempts to dismantle his reforms.
So what’s coming now? Expect a deep political battle over the future of the country’s democratic institutions that will continue even after a new president is elected.
Natasha Bennett is a visiting assistant professor of politics and government at the University of Puget Sound. Her current book manuscript analyzes access to social rights among ethnic groups, including indigenous groups in Bolivia and Peru.