Unlike with Morales’s counterparts in Latin America’s three consolidated dictatorships — Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua — his past elections have been democratic and his governance style autocratic but not authoritarian. Members of Bolivia’s long-suppressed indigenous majority felt vindicated by the election of an Aymara president, and many analysts now see Morales’s 13 years in office as successful on economic merits, with consistent growth (real GDP per capita has almost doubled) alongside fairly ambitious socialist redistributive efforts.
Although Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America, poverty has fallen from 60 percent to 34 percent on Morales’s watch. Importantly, he has avoided the sort of disastrous economic mismanagement that has wreaked havoc in Venezuela. He has also generally avoided the ostentatious thuggery of that country’s leader, relying instead on his control of the courts and a slow tightening of democratic space to sideline rivals and consolidate power without attracting undue attention from abroad. For some left-leaning commentators around the world, Morales remains an icon and proof that socialism isn’t incompatible with prosperity.
Morales deserves credit for prudent macroeconomic policies and rising living standards. Yet his success has been less the product of some secret sauce and more about timing, good luck and self-restraint — all of which might be coming to an end. He entered office in 2006, as a global commodity boom supercharged economic growth across Latin America. Although more diversified than Venezuela’s, Bolivia’s economy is heavily reliant on natural gas and other commodity exports. In turn, lower prices in recent years have forced the government to borrow more and spend down foreign reserves to keep the good times rolling. (Deficit spending is close to 8 percent of GDP.)
As the economy has cooled, so have voters’ feelings toward Morales. In 2016, Bolivians voted down a referendum to extend term limits and allow him to run again, a stunning personal rejection. Yet Evo ignored the voters, using a pliant Constitutional Tribunal to nullify the result. The justification? That term limits violated Morales’s fundamental human right to stand for office — a dubious if unoriginal legal claim.
Discontent with Morales doesn’t stop at the slowing economy or his defiance of popular will on term limits. Much of the new middle class that has emerged in the past decade and a half is restless and fatigued, and wants political change for its own sake. Meanwhile, allegations of personal indiscretions and corruption scandals have clouded his (and his MAS party’s) image as a man of the people. The same is true for what many Bolivians see as a growing number of vanity projects, including a new and glimmering 29-story presidential palace that towers over the old quarter of La Paz and a $7 million museum (the largest in Bolivia) dedicated to Morales’s life and politics in his birthplace, a village about a six-hour drive from the capital.
Then came the fires. As in Brazil, forest fires have swept across the eastern side of Bolivia. In two months, more than 10 million acres — an area larger than Maryland — have burned, devastating a sensitive, biodiverse ecosystem and the largely indigenous communities who live there. Yet Morales, apparently concerned about the political image and “national sovereignty” implications of accepting aid, refused to declare a national disaster. The real excuse might be more sinister: As in Brazil, the fires are the runaway side effect of an aggressive push by the Morales government to build alliances with agribusiness and expand cattle farming through slash-and-burn clearing. Last weekend, hundreds of thousands protested the government’s response to the blazes.
Still, none of this means Morales should be expected to lose. Polls show him leading a close race, and those might even underestimate Morales’s support. Polling in Bolivia tends to under-sample poor and rural voters, often in areas where the MAS party has a strong political machinery.
Meanwhile, the opposition is divided between two candidates, ex-president Carlos Mesa and Sen. Óscar Ortiz. Of the two, Mesa is the most formidable and likely to force a second round (which would be triggered if no candidate wins a majority or garners 40 percent of the vote while surpassing the second-place finisher by 10 points). But supporters of Ortiz — who has attacked both Morales and Mesa as past their time — might hesitate to switch candidates. To them, Mesa is uninspiring as a “change” candidate.
As a result, it is difficult to predict how this election will go. For Bolivians, the stakes go far beyond control of the presidency. Morales has shown a growing willingness to use state institutions and resources to secure his hold in power. If he is reelected, he will govern from a position of political and economic weakness, a reality he has yet to confront. A government that is politically vulnerable today might be unelectable by 2024. Morales, who will turn 60 later this month, might have burnished his reputation by quitting while he was ahead. Instead, it is difficult to see him walking away. Having eliminated the formal constraint of term limits, he might find that extending his rule under less accommodating conditions requires a more decisive break with democratic checks and balances. If so, Bolivia risks following the paths of Venezuela and Nicaragua, where authoritarian consolidation became the only alternative to surrendering power.
So even if this election is, strictly speaking, democratic, it could be Bolivia’s last genuine electoral contest for a long while. In this light, the relative passivity of the international community is unfortunate. The Organization of American States named a head of its observation mission less than two weeks before the election, and much of the region’s focus is consumed by the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and the upcoming elections in Argentina. Governments, diplomats, and journalists around the world — many of whom decry the failure to respond in a timely fashion to democratic backsliding in Venezuela — have mostly ignored Bolivia’s election. This is a mistake. In a tight race, international scrutiny and a strong, unified response to any electoral irregularities could be what allows Bolivians to salvage their democracy from the brink.