As we’ve seen in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Latin American left-leaning populists are quite content to work in democratic systems—until, that is, those systems start delivering results which they don’t like. The same dynamic is now unfolding in another Latin American country.
Evo Morales has been President of Bolivia since 2006. A strong admirer of the late Hugo Chavez, Morales stood for a fourth five-year term on 20 October, having unilaterally abolished term-limits, despite voters rejecting his bid to run for a fourth term in a 2016 referendum.
Preliminary election results on 20 October showed that Morales was in trouble, or at the very least was likely to have to go to a second round run-off election in December against the opposition candidate Carlos Mesa. But then, for unexplained reasons, the electoral count by electoral officials was stopped for 24 hours. And low and behold, as soon as counting resumed, Morales’ lead shot ahead.
Official international observers immediately indicated astonishment about what was going on. Observers from the Organization of American States (OAS), for instance, expressed “deep concern and surprise” at the sudden and frankly inexplicable shift in the result trends. They’ve described what is happening as “irregularities.”
Plenty of Bolivians prefer to use the expression “electoral fraud” and were convinced that Morales is trying to steal the election. By Monday, they were on the streets protesting. The next day, the vice president of the Bolivian Supreme Electoral Court, Antonio Costas, resigned following accusations of widespread electoral fraud. On October 23, Morales denounced the protestors as people intent on a coup and imposed a state of emergency.
The looming backdrop to this picture are deep problems in Bolivia’s economy. They include, for instance, very high levels of government spending and the development of an economy which is almost completely dependent on exports of gas and zinc. In 2019, Bolivia slipped even further down from its already low place on the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. In terms of basic institutional safeguards for freedom and rule of law, Bolivia ranks equally low, a sad state of affairs exacerbated by the fact that Morales’ “Movement Toward Socialism” controls a deeply corrupt and inefficient judiciary.
The longer-term concern is that Morales and his government will simply wait out the demonstrations. This has been the strategy they have deployed in the past and it has worked. That’s partly because the opposition have had difficulty identifying a convincing alternative leader who people want to support in a positive way rather than a candidate whose main qualification is that “He’s not Morales.” Then, when things quieten down, the government moves to harass opposition leaders through frivolous prosecutions and targeted tax investigations.
Bolivia is not a Latin American powerhouse. It does, however, have one of the longest serving leftist-populist governments in the region. That’s why the fate of Bolivian democracy matters. Crushing it via fraud and intimidation will further embolden the populist left in other parts of Latin America. And the end result will be even more set-backs to liberty and rule of law in a region of the world that desperately needs more of both.
Featured image: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 4.0]