LATIN AMERICA’S encouraging march away from authoritarian populism moved another step forward last week in Bolivia, where voters rejected the attempt of President Evo Morales to remove a limit on his tenure from the constitution. The result will not be dramatic change: Mr. Morales, who was first elected in 2005, can still remain in office until 2020 — long enough, perhaps, to mount another referendum. But the result, following the recent electoral defeats of populist regimes in Argentina and Venezuela, is another sign that the region is leaving behind a movement that, in the name of a pseudo-socialism, dismantled democratic checks and balances.
Mr. Morales rose to power with the sponsorship of former Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chávez and adopted many of his political tactics. He promoted a new constitution that weakened the democratically elected Congress, compromised the independence of courts and the central bank and intimidated independent media. A newly docile Supreme Court ruled that he could run for a third term in 2015, even though the new constitution had limited presidents to two terms. Already the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history, Mr. Morales hoped the referendum would allow him to run for yet another five-year term in 2019.
The Bolivian leader avoided some of the Chavistas’ worse excesses, particularly in economic policy. He used the country’s burgeoning revenue from gas exports to invest in roads and other infrastructure; growth has averaged 5 percent a year over the past decade, and extreme poverty has fallen by half. While Venezuela squandered a windfall from high oil prices, Mr. Morales prudently built up an impressive reserve fund.
However, many Bolivians were alienated by evidence of corruption. The 56-year-old Mr. Morales recently was forced to acknowledge a relationship with a 20-something woman who, despite lacking a college degree, headed a Chinese company that received nearly $500 million in government contracts. More millions disappeared from a government fund that was supposed to finance development projects for the indigenous communities that the president claimed to champion.
Mr. Morales’s grudging concession statement last week suggested he is far from ready to accept even a four-year horizon on his rule. “This isn’t the end of Evo,” he said. But like other Latin American commodity exporters, Bolivia faces a tough economic adjustment in the next several years, which probably will further erode the caudillo’s support. If Mr. Morales is wise, he will seek to avoid the economic and political disaster being visited on Venezuela by using his remaining years to strengthen the non-gas economy while permitting potential successors to emerge, speak and compete freely. Unlike Chávez or Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he has a chance to leave behind some positive legacies; but to do so he must accept the limit his own people have now placed on him.