Bolivia Government Change - November 2019
Evo Morales resigns. The transition is already looking like it will be difficult.
This newsletter will quickly review the events since Thursday that led to Evo Morales’s resignation, some lessons from those events, and then look at issues to expect in the coming week and coming months.
Short summary of events:
Evo Morales tried to steal the election.
Public protests erupted.
The police began to side with protesters.
The OAS audited the election and called for new elections.
Evo Morales agreed to new elections.
The military demanded Morales leave power.
Morales resigned, along with the VP and other political leaders.
Violence continues including protests, counter-protests and looting.
Opposition leaders threatened to arrest Morales and allies.
As of Monday morning, there is a power vacuum. It is not clear who is Bolivia’s president or the way forward back to a constitutional government.
Big picture takeaways for future stability events:
Elections are a pressure point for any leader attempting to hold on to power, even one willing to use fraud or repression to succeed.
Sustained public protests can sometimes pressure other institutional actors.
International pressure and attention made a difference, particularly the OAS election observation and audit processes.
Pressure for transition can lead to unexpected transition methods. A power handover post election would have been ideal. The military forcing Morales out was not the scenario the OAS or others wanted.
The security forces matter. Morales was securely in power until the police and military moved to oppose him.
Events can move quickly once the tipping point is reached. While the odds of Morales’s removal from power in the next 6 months significantly increased in the past week, there were few indications on Thursday that he had 72 hours left.
The events in the next week will shape the transition; the transition over the next three months will shape Bolivia’s future
Here is the idealized view: The country will now follow the legal succession plan for an interim government to take over. The police and military will fully subordinate to the new president. Protests and violence will end. New elections will be called and held, with a new electoral body running the elections cleanly and international observers monitoring. All the parties will participate in the election and will play fairly. A centrist, technocratic president will defeat the extremes, unite the population, and roll back the excesses of the Morales administration while retaining the positive aspects of poverty reduction and indigenous inclusion that he did enact. Democracy!
No transition in history has occurred so cleanly. The events in the hours since Evo Morales resigned have already shown some of the challenges. There is no clear agreed-upon interim president. Many government officials and members of Congress have resigned, leaving a power vacuum and some legal/constitutional questions. A struggle over the leadership of interim civilian institutions seems likely. The military continues to control things behind the scenes while waiting for a civilian leader to step up. Luis Fernando Camacho, the face of the opposition, has demanded the arrest of Evo Morales and his allies and the various security forces seem divided as to how to handle that. Protests continue. Morales’s house has been ransacked. There is no clear plan or calendar for new elections or institutions.
The next week will shape the transition. If Bolivia fights over its interim president or if the military continues to involve itself in politics, a swift and smooth transition back to elected leadership becomes unlikely. If the new leadership targets Morales and his MAS supporters, it makes it more likely they will disavow the next election and question the legitimacy of the next government. Political retribution and violence also increases the potential the Morales and MAS work to toss out the next president and/or regain power in ways that go against democratic norms.
A power struggle among the anti-Morales leadership and civil society groups that protested is almost inevitable
Backed into a corner by protests, police and the OAS audit, Morales had hoped to use new elections to divide his opposition. That trap still exists for Morales’s opponents, even after his resignation from power. Without their shared opposition of Evo Morales to unite them, the forces that pushed out the president are likely to experience greater internal differences.
Carlos Mesa was a relatively moderate and inoffensive candidate who united that group during the election process. However, he doesn’t have the charisma or the political base of support to maintain a broad coalition without an opponent uniting the group.
Mesa’s coalition includes many politicians such as Camacho and Oscar Ortiz who are more ideologically extreme than him and who represent regional interests. Those individuals are eager to push their own agendas and personal ambitions.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of centrist, center-left, poor and lower middle class Bolivians who count themselves among those who once supported Morales but turned against him due to concerns about the Morales administration's corruption or his willingness to defy voters’ demands that he leave power. Those citizens are not well represented by the coalition of Morales opponents led by Carlos Mesa. While happy Morales resigned, they don’t necessarily want to see political retribution or right wing economic policies. If those to the right of Mesa try to take more power within the coalition and interim government, those to the center and left of the political spectrum will turn against them.
In an ideal situation, those anti-Morales forces should continue to unite to figure out the electoral process and make it run cleanly. Given the ideological differences, this power struggle is unlikely to happen cleanly. How the various individuals and groups fight for power during the transition and the next election will determine how difficult it is for the next president and Congress to govern Bolivia in a democratic way.
Thanks for reading
Happy Veterans Day and Remembrance Day. It’s also a holiday here in Colombia celebrating the independence of Cartagena. I published this on a holiday because of the breaking news yesterday. I hope you all find it useful. More coming later this week.