Political vacuum in Bolivia as Morales announces resignation

Crowds celebrate long-time leader’s departure after disputed October election amid concern over what comes next.

La Paz, Bolivia – A jubilant crowd in La Paz celebrated Bolivian President Evo Morales‘s resignation on Sunday, even as the country faced a political vacuum in the wake of October’s controversial election.

“We’ve won our democracy back,” Luis Ramos told Al Jazeera as he waved the national flag in the country’s capital.

Morales, who was already under pressure following the October 20 elections, resigned after electoral fraud was identified in a preliminary report released by the Organization of American States (OAS) early on Sunday morning.

Bolivia finds itself embroiled in its worst political crisis in decades after Morales secured a slight margin of victory over his principal rival, former President and Vice-President Carlos Mesa, in the poll.

Protesters have filled city streets and set up roadblocks that have brought commerce to a standstill.

“The situation is very unstable and does seem to be deteriorating,” Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Council of the Americas told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC.

“Bolivia is traditionally a very divided society. It’s divided in geographical terms, in socio-economic terms, in racial terms so there’s a lot of kindling here for a fire to really take off if calmer heads don’t prevail.”

Morales, who had previously agreed to respect the OAS findings as binding, quickly announced new elections and a new electoral commission. Shortly after, Mesa embraced new elections but insisted that neither Morales nor his Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera should be allowed to run.

Both Mesa and the OAS agreed to allow Morales to complete his current term, which was due to end on January 22 to ensure an orderly transition.

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Luis Fernando Camacho, a Santa Cruz civic leader, has risen to prominence amid the turmoil in Bolivia. [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

Rise of conservative right

But neither anticipated the sudden rise of Santa Cruz’s civic committee leader, Luis Fernando Camacho.

The Christian conservative has stolen a lot of Mesa’s thunder, arriving in La Paz with great fanfare last week to demand Morales’s immediate resignation. He split with Mesa a day later when Mesa urged him to wait until the results of the OAS audit.

Bitter divides in Bolivia over president’s re-election

“I will never participate in another meeting with Carlos Mesa,” he told the local paper, La Razon. “I realised we were supporting a person who didn’t care about the people’s vote.”

Morales’s sudden resignation has left a political vacuum with no one currently in charge in Bolivia’s Presidential Palace. With so many resignations in the past 24 hours, Jeanine Anez, vice-president of the Senate, is next in line according to the 2009 constitution.

While most of the protests denouncing fraud have been largely peaceful, right-wing gangs have launched increasingly violent attacks on their enemies.

In recent days, they have burned down government ministers’ houses and taken their relatives hostage in order to force their resignation. Much of the attacks are couched in the racism that is never far from the surface in Bolivia.

“Indians out of the university” read graffiti in front of La Paz’s public university a week after the elections.

“They talk about democracy all the time,” said a La Paz deputy of Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her family’s safety. “But it’s clear that they don’t think poor people and Indians should all have the same rights as them. Is that democracy?”

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Morales’s win in October triggered protests on the streets of La Paz. [Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters]

The turmoil increased when part of the police forces mutinied against Morales government on November 8 and Williams Kaliman, the head of the armed forces, on Sunday “suggested” that Morales resign in order to restore peace to the country.

The current crisis has its roots in a 2016 referendum that Morales hoped would allow him to modify the constitution and run for another term.

After he narrowly lost, he promised to respect the results but a year and half later, the country’s electoral court declared that not permitting him to run would violate his human rights. They also abolished term limits for all elected government posts.

The move galvanised the fragmented opposition which steadily grew beyond the urban middle class to the rural and working-class people who had benefitted most from the policies of Morales’s government.

“I’m worried that Evo is staying in power so long,” said fruit vendor Marlene Soto, “but we want someone who will carry on his policies.”

Cochabamba feminist activist Maria Fernandez told Al Jazeera: “Evo’s last two terms in office were marked by corruption, arrogance and a disregard for the people who put him into power. But I’m not celebrating his resignation because I’m afraid that this is a takeover by religious extremists who are anti-women and racist.”

Source: Al Jazeera