Bolivia serves as a reminder that, all too often, democracies are only as strong as their weakest institution. A lack of judicial independence means that President Evo Morales looks set to win a fourth term in office, reigniting Latin America’s longstanding debate on term limits and the restrictions placed on presidential powers.
In November 2017, the country’s constitutional court overturned the result of a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians had narrowly voted down proposals to relax term limits and allow Morales to stand in the election scheduled for October 20, 2019. The ruling was upheld again in 2018 by the country’s supreme electoral court, judging that preventing him from running again would be a violation of his human rights, sparking protests. Morales, a charismatic former coca farmer and trade union leader, came to power in 2006. In 2009, he introduced a new constitution that lifted the ban on consecutive terms, which were nevertheless limited to two. Morales went on to win the 2009 and 2014 elections, justifying the latter with the fact that his first term had been under the previous constitution.
The court’s decision to favor Morales’ bid was widely anticipated. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index’s 2018 report showed that Bolivia had climbed in its rankings since 2006, rising from 50th place among 129 countries to 39th in 2018. However, the survey described the judiciary as “the weakest branch of the Bolivian government,” stating that “its independence continues to be restricted in practice.” High court judges are elected from candidates pre-selected by parliament, which is dominated by legislators from Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. “The government controls the executive, the judiciary and the legislative — we have no independent institutions,” says Raúl Peñaranda, a Bolivian political analyst.
A Continent-Wide Quandary
Two hundred years after winning independence from Spain, Latin American nations still cannot decide whether reelecting presidents is a good idea. Following a 20th century dominated by political caudillos (strongmen) and military dictatorships, the constitutions drawn up by Latin American democracies in the 1980s almost universally forbid successive presidential terms. Incumbent presidents, it was argued, could use their time in office — along with state resources — to entrench their power.
In 1993, however, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori rewrote his country’s constitution to allow for reelection. Over the next decade, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia followed suit. The example of the two-term limit mandated by the US Constitution was cited as a model to follow.
Supporters of reelection claim that it allows voters greater choice and makes the sitting president more accountable to the electorate by rewarding good performance. Constitutional reforms to allow reelection often occur during times of emergency, when incumbents persuade courts and voters that political stability and continuation are key. Fujimori and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe both achieved popular support for constitutional changes following first term success combatting guerrilla movements. In Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso argued that his continuation as president was necessary for the successful completion of key economic reforms following a deep currency crisis in the early 1990s.
This is not the case in Bolivia, however. Morales’ 13 years in power have yielded significant improvements in economic growth and political stability. An increased state role in the economy, combined with countercyclical spending and land reform led to poverty rates — measured as those living on less than $3.20 per day — dropping from 32% in 2005 to 12% by 2017. “Under Morales, social conditions have improved, poverty has fallen dramatically, and there is a level of political participation that wasn’t there previously,” said John Crabtree, a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Latin American Studies.
Given his track record of success and the plebiscite’s rejection of his continued presence in power, it would seem to be the ideal time for Morales to hand over the reins of power. Instead, he is firing up the MAS propaganda machine for a fourth term. “Not only does the constitution prohibit Morales’ candidacy, but his campaign is an unacceptable abuse of public resources,” says Peñaranda. “Every new school, vaccination scheme or successful oil well is endorsed with the president’s photo. It’s a cult of personality.”
However, Morales’ candidacy also hints at another salient recent trend in Latin America: the left’s difficulty with succession planning. Popular left-wing presidents who came to power during the so-called “pink tide” of the last decade — including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil and Rafael Correa in Ecuador — have seen their political legacies dismantled by their supposed continuity candidates, either through ineptitude or a perceived “betrayal” of their political cause.
“Morales combines certain characteristics that are hard to repeat,” says Crabtree. “He comes from a popular, unionist background, is familiar with both Aymara and Quechua communities, and is an extraordinarily deft politician. Meanwhile, there’s a lack of institutionalization in the MAS that has prevented a system of succession that would, in the long run, work in the party’s favor.”
Through a combination of weak political parties and a biddable judiciary, Morales looks set to win a fourth term against a divided opposition, whose main candidate, former President Carlos Mesa, has run a lackluster campaign so far. In its 2018 report, BTI warned that a Morales candidacy in 2019 would represent a “blatantly unconstitutional reinterpretation of existing law.” Following years of progress, it would represent a step backward for Bolivia’s democratic consolidation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.