The situation in Bolivia will get worse before it gets better

The violent ways of the opposition which took power from Evo Morales threaten the future of Bolivia’s democracy.

Bolivia protests
Clashes erupted between supporters of former Bolivian President Evo Morales and the security forces in La Paz, Bolivia on November 15, 2019 [Reuters/Henry Romero]

The results of Bolivia’s October 20 elections were hardly a surprise. Thirteen years of social and economic successes in one of Latin America’s poorest countries – including reducing extreme poverty by 60 percent and sustaining per capita GDP growth at double the average rate of the rest of Latin America – made the incumbent president Evo Morales the clear frontrunner.

The polls certainly foresaw a Morales win and many of them predicted a Morales victory without the need for a runoff. For that to happen, he needed 40 percent of the votes with at least a 10-point lead ahead of his closest rival.

The official results confirmed those predictions. Morales secured 47.07 percent of the vote, compared with 36.51 percent for his opponent, Carlos Mesa, himself a former caretaker president after the ouster of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003. Significantly, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales’s political party, also won a majority in the legislative assembly: 68 seats out of 130 in the lower house, and 21 out of 36 in the senate. 

The OAS mission of Electoral Observers, however, immediately cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process and then called on Bolivia’s electoral authorities to “convene a second round” of the presidential elections. The mission’s main complaint was what it called the “change of trend” in the vote count in the first 24 hours after the elections.

In fact, as a report I coauthored on the elections has clearly demonstrated, Morales’s increase in his margin of victory as more votes were counted was entirely consistent with the prior trend. As in prior elections, areas that overwhelmingly favoured Morales were simply counted later than those favouring his opponents. After accounting for geography, there simply was no “change of trend.”

But the doubts cast by the OAS mission on the election results emboldened Mesa and a growing and diverse protest movement. Roadblocks and barricades appeared. There were calls for strikes. Soon, large sectors of the opposition demanded that the elections be annulled, and some called for Morales’s resignation.

As tensions mounted, Mesa, who had sought to bring together the disparate groups opposed to Morales, was outflanked on his right by Luis Fernando Camacho, who had not run in the elections, but had quickly emerged as the flag bearer of the rebellion.

With links to evangelist and paramilitary groups, his own special place in the Panama Papers, and a history of racist and misogynist abuse, Camacho has been described as Bolivia’s Bolsonaro, the current far-right president of Brazil. As during the eastern lowland elites’ failed 2008 coup against Morales, Camacho and his Civic Committee of Santa Cruz conjured up strong regionalist and racist, anti-indigenous sentiments.

Some of the protests were violent. Some polling stations and electoral tribunals were attacked and burned down. Protesters harassed and humiliated MAS supporters, including a MAS mayor whose hair they forcefully cut off, covered her body in red paint, and marched through the streets on public display. In the two weeks following the elections, several deaths, on both sides of the political divide, were lamented.

In the midst of this dangerous polarisation, Morales opted for appeasement and compromise. On October 27, his government agreed to an OAS audit of the electoral process and promised to abide by its findings.

When on November 10, the audit’s preliminary report came out, it was vague. It repeated the original statistical blunders of the mission of observers described above and shifted the line of fire to the detection of new irregularities, without mentioning how many votes had been jeopardised and whether these were sufficient to cancel Morales’s 0.5 margin above the 10-point threshold necessary to avoid a runoff. Significantly, the report did not provide any concrete evidence or identify the tally sheets with problems. Despite these important shortcomings, the audit report called for new elections. 

A few hours after the report’s release, Morales, who by then was fast losing control over the country and its institutions, agreed to call for new elections and announced the designation of new electoral authorities. 

But it was already too late. Members of Morales’s cabinet, legislators, local authorities, and their families were threatened. Opposition supporters looted their houses, burning down some, and several senior Morales allies sought asylum in the Mexican embassy. A police mutiny made matters worse. Then the high command of the military called for the president’s resignation.

Morales resigned and then went into hiding, fearing for his life. He eventually left Bolivia to seek asylum in Mexico. But he might not have managed to do so were it not for the active diplomatic protection of the Mexican government and the involvement of the president-elect of Argentina.

In a November 12 press conference, the Mexican foreign minister provided a unique account of how Bolivia’s neighbours, having initially granted authorisation for the use of their airspace, started to renege, one after the other, on their promise to allow the passage of the Mexican plane taking Morales to the safety of his exile.

These sudden changes of position, in some instances, once the aircraft was already – and perilously – airborne, raise troubling questions as to whether strong pressures were exerted to try and prevent Morales’s escape and survival.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration celebrated the coup by “applaud[ing] the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect … Bolivia’s constitution.” Donald Trump, who became president despite receiving almost three million fewer votes than his opponent, proclaimed: “We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere” – an unnerving reminder of the government doublespeak employed to support policies of regime change in Latin America and around the world.

In Bolivia, the political vacuum lasted several days. Then, on November 12, deputy Senate leader Jeanine Anez was ushered into the senate. She proclaimed herself president in an almost empty chamber and in the absence of the minimal legal quorum for the Senate to convene.

Anez is a far-right evangelical Christian better known for her repetitive racist remarks, including describing indigenous customs as “satanic“. She entered the presidential palace brandishing a huge Bible and proclaimed that “the Bible has returned to the government palace” while a group of supporters accompanied her, chanting “Praise the Lord!” Camacho, the Bolivian Bolsonaro, was at her side. If there was ever a symbolic moment for the trouncing of Latin America’s strong political culture of laicismo, the separation of church and state, this was it.

While Anez pledged to act as an interim president and promptly call new elections, she swiftly sent signals that she intended to rule. She named a right-wing cabinet, ordered the army onto the streets to suppress pro-Morales protests, and quickly recognised opposition figure Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. Journalists, including foreign correspondents, have been threatened, while members of Cuba’s medical mission have been arrested.

The coup that has taken place is unlikely to lead to the pacification of the country or generate political stability in Bolivia. Morales’s remarkable social and economic legacy won’t be quickly forgotten by Bolivia’s popular classes. And, with nearly half of the electorate having voted for the MAS and indigenous protests spontaneously erupting all over the country and being fiercely repressed, the future remains uncertain.

Any potential attempt to prevent the MAS and its most representative candidates from taking part in future elections, by mimicking other efforts in the region to outlaw the Left and its political leaders, will send the country further into a spiral of unrest and instability. Bolivia may yet experience much turmoil, repression, violence, and anguish before it sees the restoration of democracy and the rule of law.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.