Democracy under Threat? : Bolivia as a Latin American Case Study

By the end of the twentieth century, the progress of democracy seemed almost inevitable.  Waves of democratic expansion had taken place after World War II, during decolonization, and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  However, the twenty-first century has witnessed a variety of challenges to the spread of democracy.  Such issues can be divided into two separate categories: non-democratic retrenchment and weakening of current democracies.  The Arab Spring is an excellent example of non-democratic retrenchment.  Although protests toppled governments or led to civil wars in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria, only Tunisia has successfully transitioned to democratic government. China provides another example of a nation that continues to embrace a non-democratic government, as emphasizedby the recent removal of term limits for Xi Jinping, effectively making him president for life.

The weakening of current democracies is strongly connected with three main forces: illiberal populism, corruption, and attacks on the rule of law.  In Poland, attacks on freedom of press and the court system have led to widespread protests.  In Slovakia and Peru, corruption charges and public outrage have forced resignations. The spread of right wing populist parties has also led to concerns of threats to democracy, both in Europe and around the world.  In the Philippines, for example, the populist presidency of Rodrigo Duterte has resulted in a return to autocratic behavior and human rights violations reminiscent of brutal dictatorships.

Image Courtesy of Joel Alvarez via Wikimedia Commons, © 2008, some rights reserved

Considering these trends, is important to assess the current state of democracy in the world.  One regional battleground for democracy is in Latin America.  The remarkable transition away from the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s to democratic governments has recently come under threat.  This is largely due to corruption scandals, of which the Odebrecht scandal is the most notorious. One important case studyfor the region is that of Bolivia, a country that became a democracy in the 1980s.  In previous years, it has faced concerns over past dictators, such as Hugo Banzer, winning elected office.  Recently, however, tests of Bolivia’s democracy have come from a different direction: the current president Evo Morales.

Juan Evo Morales Ayma was born into an indigenous Aymara family and became a coca trade union leader.  Morales came to the public consciousness during the Cochabamba Water War and Gas War in the early 2000s over the issue of privatization of water and gas.  As the leader for the Movement for Socialism party (MAS), he has nationalized industries, boosted public welfare spending, and expanded rights of indigenous peoples. He is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and has been an important leader in the ‘pink tide’ of liberal and socialist governments in Latin America.

Evo Morales has been serving as president of Bolivia since he was first elected in 2005.  In 2009, he successfully fought for the creation of a new constitution for Bolivia that expanded indigenous rights.  A controversial clausethat would have allowed him to run for election indefinitely was not included. Thus, it seemed as if Morales would leave office after his second term.  However, in 2013, Bolivia’s Supreme Court accepted a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for a third term.  The Court found that because the constitution was changed during Morales’ first term it did not count towards term limits. Under this ruling, Morales ran for and won reelection in 2014 by a large margin.

Once again, it seemed as if Morales would be required to step down at the end of his term.  In February 2016, a contentious referendum was held to determine whether he could run for a fourth term.  It was defeated narrowly by 51 percent to 49 percent.  Shortly before the referendum, allegations surfaced that Morales had had a child with his ex-girlfriend Gabriela Zapata, who held a post at a construction company with large government contacts.  This personal scandal, along with a general sense of concern over his lengthy period in office likely contributed to his defeat.

In December 2016, however, Morales stated that he and his party were looking into ways of securing permission for a fourth term, in direct contradiction of the February referendum.  In November 2017, the Plurinational Constitutional Court ruled that Morales could indeed run for additional presidential terms.  The ruling is from Bolivia’s highest court and cannot be appealed. The court argued that term limits restrict office seekers’ human rights, an argument opposed by many of the world’s democracies.  Morales will now be able to run for a fourth termin 2019, in open opposition of the referendum.

The crisis to Bolivian democracy will remain at least until the election, if not longer.  Understanding how the situation came about is essential to drawing lessons for the rest of the region.  Morales was elected legally and enjoyed widespread popular support.  However, over the years he has chipped away at constitutional limits on his power.  The presidency is understood not as an abstract institution, but as a position inhabited by one man.  This allows a cult of personality to develop around Evo Morales, as the success or failure of Bolivian government seems to hinge on his presence.  The situation is by no means unsalvageable, but it must be watched closely as a potential harbinger of future threats to democracy that must be avoided.  Only by constant vigilance and buttressing of constitutional limits and protections can democracy continue to be a deterrent to authoritarian impulses around the world.


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