By Jeanette Bonifaz
One year ago, on February 21, 2016, Bolivian President Evo Morales was defeated in a national referendum. The Bolivian people voted against a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to run for a fourth consecutive term in office. Morales initially pledged to “respect the results,” suggesting that the most “important thing is to salute the Bolivian people for their democratic will.” It did not take long, however, for the president to reverse course and dismiss the referendum results as the culmination of a “dirty war” carried out by the media. Next, in direct violation of the constitution and the 2016 national referendum, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) approved his candidacy to run for reelection in 2019. Morales accepted his party’s nomination, saying, “If the people say, ‘lets go with Evo,’ then no problem!”+
The principles of democracy promoted by Morales’ party have time after time been contradicted by the government’s actions and Morales’ fascination with remaining in power, which sends a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of democracy in Bolivia. MAS is currently putting considerable effort into finding a justifiable way that will allow Morales to run for office again in 2019, including a plan to have him resign six months prior to the end of his term. Democracy is a hard-won achievement in Latin America, and Morales needs to protect it by abiding by the results of last year’s referendum.
Under Morales’ presidency, Bolivia has achieved significant progress in key social and economic indicators such as poverty, income, and wages, and it is not as if the referendum vote was a blowout – 51.3 percent voted against the amendment and 48.7 percent supported it. In fact, Morales’ approval ratings, according to a recent poll+ from the cities of Cochabamba, El Alto, La Paz, and Santa Cruz de la Sierra, reach a high 58 percent. But, interestingly, only 34 percent of the participants approve his candidacy in 2019. This suggests that the problem is not necessarily President Morales’ approval or the validity of his past three terms; the question at hand is a matter of constitutionality and democracy.
Bolivia’s constitution allows for a maximum of two consecutive terms, and Morales is already in his third term in office (2015-2020), meaning he is challenging this provision for the second time. Morales’ previous success was achieved through a controversial amendment signed by the Vice President and a green light from the Supreme Court when it ruled that Morales’ first term (2006-2010) did not count since a new Constitution was ratified in 2009. This time Morales sought to let the people have a say in amending the constitution, but they voted against his interests and he now seems focused on delegitimizing the referendum.
When Morales attributes his defeat to a “dirty war,” allegedly waged by the opposition, he is referring to the reporting on the revelations that his former secret girlfriend, Ms. Gabriela Zapata, profited handsomely from her ties to the president. Zapata served as a senior executive at a Chinese company that the Bolivian government awarded with contracts worth more than 500 million dollars. Additionally, it was a shock to learn that back in 2007 Morales and Zapata had a child, and the ensuing dilemma of whether the child was dead or alive added to the turmoil. It turned out that the child had indeed passed away.
Government officials and supporters have launched a campaign called “21F, the day of the lie,”+ claiming that Morales’ defeat in last year’s referendum was a direct result of the scandal about the child. Focusing on the child is an attempt by government supporters to drift attention from the more relevant issue of influence peddling. Both government supporters and the opposition will march today, exactly one year after Bolivia said NO, to have their competing narratives heard.
Government supporters need to understand that having a president for 20 continuous years would essentially make the country undemocratic, at least if alternation of power is considered a tenet of democracy. Instead of focusing its attention on devising creative maneuvers that will allow Morales to run for a fourth term, MAS should instead focus on seeking and nurturing other potential leaders within its party. Fixating their efforts on installing Morales for what is becoming an indefinite amount of time is a shortsighted strategy that serves neither the party nor the country. With all the power that Morales currently has at his disposal, making democracy stronger by adhering to the constitution and the national referendum should be his unquestionable priority. It is not too late for him to show that, after all, he and his party actually do respect the “democratic will” of the Bolivian people.
Jeanette Bonifaz is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Jeanette earned her BA in International Relations, Latin American Studies, and International Development from American University in 2013. Her work has been published online in Common Dreams, openDemocracy, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and CEPR’s The America’s Blog: Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber.
+ Sources originally in Spanish.