Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has long been seen as a benign (and, ultimately, successful) version of Latin American left-wing leadership. Questionable international partnerships and controversial nationalizations aside, Morales’ prudent macroeconomic management has helped Bolivia’s economy outperform many of its neighbors over the past 12 years of his administration.
But with presidential elections scheduled for 2019 and Morales technically barred from running for a fourth term, there are growing signs that the Bolivian democrat could give in to the same strongman compulsions that have attracted his counterparts in Venezuela and elsewhere in the region. What’s more, Bolivia’s opposition has been slow to articulate a coordinated and effective response.
Morales’ drift from democracy is most clearly seen in his refusal to accept the result of a referendum last year that prevents him from seeking a fourth presidential term. Rather than beginning to promote a like-minded successor, he implicitly questioned the results by pointing to opponents’ supposedly unfair tactics. Few expect Morales to refrain from attempting to tinker with the system if it means keeping himself in control.
A very pro-government judiciary – the result of a controversial process through which judges are elected directly by citizens – could play a key role. One option open to Morales is to resign six months before the end of his third term, which could lead the submissive courts to allow a potential — and theoretically unconstitutional — fourth term. He may also decide to simply push for another referendum, or accelerate legal proceedings against opposition politicians that seem to be aimed at making them ineligible in upcoming elections.
As a result, the streets of La Paz and El Alto are now marked by growing ambivalence regarding the first indigenous president in the country’s history. Most Bolivians think Morales has done a good job, and indeed the vast majority of citizens are better off than their parents. Yet a growing number of people are tired of Morales. In urban areas in particular, many ridicule his increasingly authoritarian antics. “You can’t watch TV for 30 minutes without seeing his face,” a young accountant in La Paz complained to me during a recent trip there.
This tendency is compounded by increasingly strident attacks on critical media. In El Alto, a cab driver who has voted for Morales at every opportunity over the past decade and a half told me the government-produced documentary “The Cartel of the Lie,” which lashes out against opposition news outlets, had convinced him that the president had no intention of ever leaving office. “He could not accept that he lost a free election, so they had to cry foul.”
But the options for an alternative to Morales – from either the left or the right – are slim. Within the Movement to Socialism (MAS), any talk of a post-Morales future is taboo; the party named him as their 2019 candidate last December. “I swear absolute loyalty to (him),” one party member told me. This was the moment of my visit when I was reminded of the early Hugo Chávez years in Venezuela. The MAS’ entire structure is built around Morales, and the president’s strategy of constantly reshuffling both cabinet and military posts assures that no new leaders can emerge on the left.
At least privately, opposition politicians recognize that there is no easy way out. Potential candidates for the 2019 election are either a throwback to Bolivia’s unstable past, or they would struggle to carry the countryside, which is critical if they hope to beat the MAS. Carlos Mesa, an intellectual and former president, may be their best bet; friends confide he is eager to improve his place in history after his botched presidency from 2003-2005. Samuel Doria Medina, an energetic businessman, may be qualified, but is short on charisma.
What they and others lack is a compelling vision of Bolivia after Morales, or a narrative that speaks to both urban and rural voters. Which of the policies introduced by the MAS government should be preserved, what should be changed? Even if one of them could unexpectedly win the presidency, they may not be able to govern. Like Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Morales has been exceptionally good at reaching consensus — even if not always by legal means, as a growing number of corruption scandals attest.
This last issue hints at a structural problem that will be hard for the opposition to overcome: Governing requires the distribution of favors, and Bolivian voters actively demand clientelistic measures that benefit them directly. Should the economy take a dive (and there are signs that pragmatists in the Finance Ministry are increasingly being overruled by ideologues), not even Morales would be able to avoid a return to the political instability and weak governments that marked the decades that preceded his election.
Are there any reasons to be optimistic? The emergence of young leaders with national appeal in the MAS and in the opposition would help maintain the vigor of Bolivia’s democracy. People like Soledad Chapetón, the mayor of El Alto, come to mind. Yet many young Bolivians seem reluctant to engage politically. “Politics is a dirty business, I am too honest,” a twenty-something economics graduate told me over coffee in La Paz. A seventy-year old former politician was equally pessimistic: “Party politics is tough, it means working around the clock, but the young just like to sit at home and click around on their computers,” he said. To keep instability from returning to Bolivia, he must be proven wrong.