Bolivian President Evo Morales intends to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019 despite constitutional term limits — and despite losing a referendum last year to alter these limits.
Representatives of Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism, or the MAS, have petitioned the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal to remove the term limits. As Bolivians wait for the court’s ruling — expected before judicial elections on Dec. 3 — it is worth assessing the state of Bolivian democracy.
Is Bolivia is headed in the direction of Venezuela?
Morales’s opponents see these trends as a “Chávez move” — something the late president of Venezuela would have attempted. But Morales’s supporters see him as irreplaceable. The MAS goes as far as to invoke Morales’s human right to run for office indefinitely.
The issue is not a trivial one: Bolivia isn’t directly following Venezuela’s path, but reelecting the president could open the doors for further abuses of power and threaten democracy in Bolivia in the long run.
Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador often are associated with the populist, illiberal and undemocratic attributes found in Latin America’s more radical, or “Bolivarian,” left regimes in the past decade. Unlike the other two countries, the Bolivian process produced a new party, the MAS, founded directly by social movements.
This “party of movements” is a novel feature in the country — and a remarkable feature in the region. Bolivia also produced a new constitution in 2009 that combined broad societal input, elite-level compromise and public approval via referendum.
Bolivia achieved economic stability and social inclusion
On the surface, Bolivia may look like Venezuela, but its economic policies and politics are quite different. For example, Morales pursued prudent macroeconomic policies from the outset. Largely thanks to commodities, Bolivia’s energy- and mineral-rich economy saw annual GDP growth averaging 5 percent, reaching a peak of 6.8 percent in 2013. International Monetary Fund estimates project 4.2 percent growth in 2017.
The country also made impressive gains in reducing poverty and inequality, with the formation of an incipient middle class and an estimated 1 million people — about 10 percent of the population — escaping poverty. The result has been a more prosperous society with a proliferation of new businesses, an unprecedented rise in consumption, aspirations of upward mobility and improvements in urban transportation.
Compared with other Bolivarian experiences, the MAS pursued changes in social policy akin to those followed by the moderate left in Uruguay (2004-present) and Brazil (2002-2015). Social policy innovations include a universal noncontributory pension and several conditional cash transfers. Although modest, these transfers directly benefit broad segments of society and create favorable policy legacies in the long run.
Can authoritarians deliver stable democracies?
Like leaders in other Bolivarian regimes, Morales has treated opponents with hostility. Morales stands out, however, for finding a solution to pernicious polarization and achieving remarkable stability in a country known for unstable politics. Although Morales initially confronted a highly mobilized economic elite that brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2008, he neutralized its political power. Commodity-driven growth helped.
Claims that Bolivia has become an authoritarian regime may be exaggerated. Since Morales took office in 2006, Bolivia has remained democratic. Its ranking on the Freedom House index of civil and political rights remains unchanged, and the country has seen only a slight decline over the past decade on the V-Dem liberal democracy index.
In my research, I show that Bolivia has moved in a more democratic direction by bringing previously marginalized groups into the political power game. The political and symbolic inclusion of subordinate groups created a “new normal” in Bolivia’s political arena — in large part attributable to the organization and behavior in power of the MAS.
Groups that were previously on the margins of political life now have a say on who gets what, when and how. This doesn’t happen through strong institutional channels but through a mobilization-countermobilization power game between the MAS and its social bases, with Morales playing a central role.
To be sure, Bolivia’s institutions remain weak, and there is little respect for the checks and balances of liberal democracy. Congress remains subordinated to Morales, whose party has controlled both legislative chambers since 2009.
Bolivia’s courts are feeble, partial and politicized — patterns that may deepen with the Dec. 3 judicial elections. The lack of institutional checks and the personalization of power are real. And this personalization has increased since 2014, when the MAS declined to cultivate a new leader beyond the tenure of Morales.
The result has been increasingly authoritarian behavior by Morales, with renewed and openly hostile attacks on opponents and the press.
What is the threat to democracy?
In February 2016, Morales narrowly lost a referendum to change the basic law so that he could run again in 2019. At that time, there was a fork in the road: The MAS could have looked for a new presidential candidate, or new ways to enable Morales to rerun. Blaming the media for the unfavorable results, the party opted to keep Morales as its candidate, no matter what.
At times, the mobilization of powerful, autonomous social movements has counteracted authoritarian behavior and forced Morales to uphold the constitution. However, Morales’s willingness to alter the hard facts of constitutionally mandated term limits crosses a new line — one that threatens democracy in Bolivia.
The country’s 2009 constitution has long been the banner of Morales’s party — a demand of the social movements that formed the party and that propelled it to office. The paradox now is that the political opposition — including Samuel Doria Medina, leader of the National Unity Party, as well as former presidents — once starkly opposed the constitution, but members of the opposition are becoming its lone defender.
Bolivia is not Venezuela, but it shares a similar problem: how to sustain a political regime beyond the tenure of a highly personalistic leader. This has been a problem for Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among other countries.
While Morales has been able to concentrate power to a significant degree, the result is something still different from an authoritarian regime — a democracy that has moved aggressively in a more democratic direction in terms of inclusion, while declining sharply in terms of horizontal checks and balances on presidential authority.
Morales’s attempt to stay in power further weakens the checks and balances, and his insistence on reelection threatens the integrity of the constitutional order he himself promoted. In the long run, it also jeopardizes the significant advances Bolivia has made in terms of inclusion.
Santiago Anria is an assistant professor of political science and Latin American studies at Dickinson College. His current book manuscript examines movement-based parties in Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay.