Crumbling Democracy and Protest Movements in Evo Morales’ Bolivia


January 10, 2018

Picture: Early December, an egg-protest depicted the lack of courage to stand up against the Morales-administration. “This is a peaceful protest, we do not get anyone to throw eggs, we only bring eggs to business people if they are missing,” said María Belén Mendívil, spokesperson for the protest. 

Published 10. January 2018

In the last week of 2017, CANVAS wrote about the rising tension in Honduras, after the November 2017 elections turned into a true stand-off. A little further south, in Bolivia, citizens also face an increasingly authoritarian government. As President Evo Morales tries to sideline the country’s constitution to assure himself of another term in office, Bolivian citizens are rising up to restore democracy in their Andean country, using nonviolence as one of their main weapons.

Morales’ path to the Presidency

Evo Morales’ political career originated from protest movements against former President Sánchez de Lozada (in 2003) and his successor Carlos Mesa (in 2005). These movements evolved from the grievances caused by two decades of so called “pacted democracy”, in which three main political parties governed the country in shifting coalitions. Their market reforms, involving liberalization, deregulation and privatization, had an exclusionary bias that caused most of Bolivia’s poor and indigenous people to feel excluded and marginalized. The grievances associated with neoliberal reforms added to this. Already during the 1990s, indigenous and social movements increasingly challenged the system of agreements between elites.

Between 2000 and 2005, a series of political crises caused massive social protests and forced two Presidents out of office. The protest movement also paved the way for Morales, who was a union leader and coca grower himself. Late 2005, Morales was elected President of Bolivia, becoming the country’s first head of state of indigenous origin. Since then, Morales has led a process of decisive political change that has included a profound reshaping of the country’s political system through constitutional reform as well as a change of course in economic, social and coca/drug policies.

A new constitution was drafted and a broad majority (61%) adopted the new document in a referendum early 2009. By significantly increasing the role of the state in the economy, Morales was able to boost economic growth at an average rate of 5.15% a year between 2006 and 2016. His social policies significantly improved indigenous rights, and reduced poverty and inequality.

Crumbling Democracy

Bolivian President Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) are still supported by a broad majority of the Bolivian population. Morales is particularly popular among the so-called “popular sectors”, which includes the country’s diverse indigenous majority. The President was re-elected for a third term in the 2014 elections with more than 60% of the vote, allowing the governing MAS party to maintain its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

But with time, Morales seemed to develop an understanding of democracy that did not apply to him. Despite the fact that the Bolivian Constitution only allows for a President to serve two terms in office, Morales’ 2014 electoral victory was the start of his third consecutive term. Early October 2017, Morales launched his bid to extend legal term limits clearing the way for him to run for a fourth term in 2019. On November 28, 2017, the Bolivian Constitutional Court then annulled Constitutional articles that forbid Morales to run for a fourth term in the 2019 presidential elections, allowing indefinite reelection.

This decision is the more salient, as the Bolivian people has already decided against that exact possibility in a 2016 referendum. The “No” option won nationwide with 51.3% of the votes. Nevertheless, halfway 2017 Morales’ Movement to Socialism ignored the will of the people, and asked the country’s highest court to rescind legal limits barring elected authorities from seeking re-election indefinitely. The party argued that the term limits violate human rights. With the Constitutional Court ruling in favor of that argument, Morales might have gone one step too far.

Pro-democracy Movements

Already in October, thousands of people across the country participated in protest-rallies against Morales’ bid for re-election in 2019. Two months later, as the decision of the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo, the protest movement revived. According to Jhanisse Vaca Daza, “citizens took to the streets to protest on the day the Constitutional Court ruling was announced, and have stayed active through different means of protest since.”

Several new action groups have appeared in Bolivia over the last year, characterized by certain features not seen before in the Southern-American state. Where male actors used to dominate the Bolivian political space, several activist groups strongly empower women and project them as the new leaders in society. Protests are also turning increasingly creative. A group of female protesters brought eggs to the Chamber of Industry and Commerce as an offering of encouragement to have the “balls” to stand up against the government early December. Around that same time, activists from the Kuna Mbarete group staged a symbolic funeral for the Civic Committee, as that body failed to pronounce itself against the Constitutional Court ruling.

Finally, the nature of the protest-movement opposing the Morales-administration has also fundamentally changed. In the past, movements have backed particular individuals and their battle to facilitate Morales’ fall from the throne. But the Bolivian population has turned its eyes to younger generations looking for new leaders, with new developments mainly concentrated in the city of Santa Cruz. Currently, citizen platforms are organizing themselves in a singular, horizontal group of socially coordinated movements, which seek to “empower not any one individual but the message of struggle for democracy itself,” according to Vaca Daza.

In line with this new strategic direction, over 15 platforms and independent activists united themselves with a manifesto on December 29th. A broad coalition of student unions, female civic resistance groups, health workers, environmental groups and democracy activists pledged to build on the active and interventionist tactics of nonviolent resistance to “resist the tyranny” and called on fellow citizens to join them in making their voice heard. CANVAS will be following the developments in Bolivia closely!