Bolivia’s Perennial President


It is often expected that democracies impose term limits on presidential candidates. Such is the case in Bolivia, where the current term limit is set at two terms and general elections are set for October 12, 2014. So why is the incumbent, Juan “Evo” Morales, running for the third time?

The simple answer is that he is doing so because he can. Following a spurt of political instability in 2008, a January 2009 referendum instituted a new constitution, which reestablished the country as the Plurinational State of Bolivia and set new presidential term limits. A provision of the constitution states that terms prior to enactment do not count toward these limits. As such, despite promising before the constitutional referendum that he would not seek reelection following its enactment, Morales will run for president again.

And he will surely win. Though there are numerous candidates on the ballot for the October 12 election, Morales has an enormous lead over all of them. Morales has stated that he hopes to win 74 percent of the vote, and he may well get his wish. How is it that a president with a dubious claim to the legitimacy of his candidacy is still so popular? The answer lies in the Morales government’s manipulation of democratic institutions under the guise of populism.

Crisis and Reform

The most sweeping political changes tend to come out of periods of strife. Such was the case with the current constitution. In 2008, political movements for autonomy in the eastern departments—and especially in the Santa Cruz department—became a central concern in Bolivia. Protests, often led by the governors of the departments themselves, called for the central Bolivian government to lessen its bind over each region. Specifically, the eastern departments called for more control over the revenues generated from the sales of hydrocarbons, a newly important part of these departments’ economies.

These movements for autonomy were not all peaceful, however. Protestors resorted to taking government buildings and blocking roads. Twenty pro-Morales farmers were killed in one incident in the Pando department that was declared the Porvenir Massacre. As a compromise, Bolivian leaders met to discuss proposals from various department leaders on September 25, 2008, and the group agreed that a referendum for a new constitution would be put forth and elections held the following year.

The 2009 constitution gave some limited powers back to the departments, but also renamed the country and established a fourth branch of government, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, that is meant to monitor the validity of elections. Though the new constitution would allow the president to run twice more under its terms, Morales agreed not to do so. That is, until recently.

The Manipulation of Democratic Institutions

Under Morales, there has been a greater concentration of power in the executive, which his administration uses to ensure its continued rule. For example, under the new constitution, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal consists of seven members, with one member chosen by the president and the rest voted on by rest of Plurinational Legislative Assembly. The Assembly itself, however, is dominated by MAS, therefore the president’s interests are undoubtedly well-represented in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Similarly, the members of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which ruled that Morales was eligible to run again, are elected by popular vote in each department. As the majority of departments are pro-Morales,  the Supreme Tribunal reflects this political balance. This MAS domination of the governmental institutions has made it easy for the Morales camp to abuse its power.

One of the ways that the administration demonstrates its abuse of power is through its propensity to jail or exile political opponents. Alejandro Brown, a Bolivian political exile living in Brazil, told the HPR, “We have more political exiles [now] than under the military dictatorships of the past.” Since Morales’s ascension to power, at least 300 Bolivians have gained political asylum status in various countries. Notable cases include the exile of former Cochabamba governor Manfred Reyes Villa to the United States and that of former senator Roger Pinto Molina to Brazil. Some political opponents, like former governor of Pando Leopoldo Fernández, who was accused of orchestrating the Porvenir Massacre, have been awaiting trial for years. While Morales’s government falls short of a political dictatorship, it has gradually hindered political freedoms, and the results can be acutely seen in the current elections.

These elections, despite their preordained result, still field many candidates. The main opposition candidate in the presidential race is Samuel Doria Medina of the Unidad Nacional, but Juan del Granado, former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga, and Fernando Vargas Mosúa further split the opposition vote. These candidates are especially at a disadvantage due to a law that prohibits campaigning for presidential elections until 30 days before the event. In other words, Morales could make various media appearances ostensibly as president while effectively campaigning for himself, but his competitors could not. “The National Channel 7 shows the president finishing construction projects, giving speeches, and playing soccer … [and] not even 1 percent of the airtime is dedicated to opposition candidates,” Walter Arrázola, coordinator of the Institute of Legal Administration at the Catholic University of Bolivia. On top of that disadvantage, opposition candidates must also deal with the difficulty of traveling quickly around Bolivia’s nine departments, which the president can easily accomplish with the private presidential airplane.

The lack of official results for the 2012 census further hinders the efforts of opposition candidates. Typically, candidates get to scrutinize the electoral census to determine projections and gauge demographics, but there was no such statistical information provided to candidates in this election. Many believe that the results of these census figures would put the population of the eastern and more anti-Morales department of Santa Cruz at a higher level than the pro-Morales department of La Paz, thereby apportioning more representatives that are against Morales to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. All of these restrictions effectively act as a massive barrier to the presidency in Bolivia. Even if these barriers were gone, however, opposition candidates would still have trouble in the current political and economic climate of the country.

The Popularity of Populism

Despite the Morales government’s unsavory tactics to maintain itself in power, the president’s populist approach ensures continued public support. In recent years, the government has given out monetary bonuses to students and the elderly, including a guaranteed pension program that kicks in at the age of 60. The Morales administration often specifically orchestrates other social programs to be associated with the president’s image.

One such program purportedly gives students computers to take home. In actuality, Arrázola explains, the computers are assigned to students but must remain on school grounds. These computers, oddly enough, come in boxes featuring an image of Morales. Commenting on this, Arrázola notes somewhat colorfully, “Everything done by the government has Evo Morales’s face stamped on it … There is a cable car in La Paz bearing his image. If the government gives out soccer balls at public events, the balls have his visage on them.” The government has also invested very heavily in the economy: public investment composes about half of all investment in Bolivian enterprises. However, it is unclear if these funds are efficiently handled or if the government contracts are distributed corruptly. Regardless, “the average Bolivian feels like times are good,” concludes Arrázola. The bonuses and other social programs keep the majority happy, and the result is that Morales enjoys a cult of personality very similar to that of former president Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

But how is the government paying for all these programs? On the surface, the Bolivian economy seems to be doing very well. GDP growth, according to the Heritage Foundation, was at 5.2 percent with 4.8 percent five-year compound growth. This growth, however, is largely driven by high commodity prices since Morales took office, especially in hydrocarbons. Bolivia has not, according to Arrázola, made any real gains in productivity. The economy is essentially in a bubble and will take a sharp turn for the worse once commodity prices drop.

Further inflating the Bolivian money supply is the black market, mainly in cocaine trafficking. Alejandro Brown said that Ernesto Justiniano, former Bolivian “anti-drug czar,” claimed that Bolivia produced 80 tons of cocaine last year. This number directly conflicts with the current czar’s, Carlos Romero, estimates of 20 tons. The MAS government has itself acknowledged that 47 percent  of the coca harvests produced in the country is used in drug trafficking.

Bolivia has become more lenient on drug trafficking under Morales. In 2008, Bolivia lost its trade preference with the United States under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act for failing to comply with the stipulations of the agreement. The loss of trade preferences has hurt the textile industry, but this loss has been masked by the profitable rise in hydrocarbon exports. However, the net effect is negative: the loss of these preferences has coincided with a reduction in foreign and local investment. On top of that, the lure of the black market has helped make Bolivia’s labor force 60 percent informal, meaning that most working people do not pay taxes.

After the Elections

All in all, the economy of Bolivia is doing well now, but structural issues will prevent it from achieving real growth in the future. More distressing is that a dip in the price of commodities has the potential to seriously depress its economy. Unfortunately, however, no one is talking about these issues on the campaign trail. “The candidates are limited to a certain degree of populism in their speech,” says Arrázola. If candidates do not take on this populist message, they stand no chance of winning.  What results is an unfortunate stalemate wherein candidates have to echo the president, thereby giving him more authority and weakening their political positions.

The result on October 12 is already a foregone conclusion. People will cast their votes, and the tally will most likely be unadulterated and the results unquestioned. The international community may well congratulate Bolivia on a successful election. Unfortunately, few will recognize that the entire electoral process presents institutional barriers that make electoral fraud unnecessary because the incumbent’s election is all but guaranteed. What remains to be seen is if the mechanisms that support the populism of Evo Morales will continue to prevail or if the recent chaos of Venezuela will see itself repeated in Bolivia.

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