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  • Lauren Bear

The Power Vacuum in Bolivia: Origins and What's Next

At 8pm on October 20th, the day of Bolivia’s presidential election, the Bolivian national voting system failed, leaving the results of the presidential vote unknown for 24 hours. Before the system failure, incumbent Evo Morales was 10 points shy of the required lead to win the election outright. When the vote count resumed, the results showed Morales at 46.85% and the opposition, Carlos Mesa, at 36.7%. During those 24 hours, Morales had gained a significant lead and the ability to declare victory without a run-off.

The November election failure became the tipping point for months of political unrest and mistrust in Bolivia’s government. After the election, citizens protested for weeks unleashing acts of violence around the country. Protestors set fire to the headquarters of local electoral offices and forced the police to retreat to their barracks in 3 cities. The violence finally ended when Morales stepped down along with his Vice President and multiple national assembly leaders. Without these top officials, Bolivia was left with a power vacuum and no clear successor to the presidency. How did this happen and why?

13 years ago, at the time of Morales’s first election, Bolivia was the poorest country in South America. 35% of the population lived in poverty and 16% were classified as illiterate. Evo Morales, an indigeneous Bolivian born into poverty, had gained the trust of the Bolivian people by promising to rebuild the country. Once elected, Bolivians flocked to the street, rejoicing for the first ever elected indigenous president. During his term, Morales was acclaimed to have reduced poverty, sustained economic growth, and encouraged relative peace in the country. Morales proved that even though he was raised on discarded orange peels, he could eventually become president and represent the Bolivian people. This makes it even more interesting that the people who elected him aggressively abandoned him 13 years later.

Throughout his Presidency, Morales has been accused of abusing his power and turning Bolivia into an authoritarian state. He is also responsible for illegitimately persecuting political opponents and partaking in multiple corruption scandals. When Morales attempted to abolish presidential term limits in 2016, voters quickly rejected the bill. Regardless of the public vote, the bill was passed by the constitutional court who claimed term limits were a violation of human rights. In attempts to maintain his power, Morales blamed the opposition for staging a ‘coup’ against the democratic government when the election system failed on October 20th, yet the Bolivian people did not believe him. Instead Bolivians saw it as an anti-democratic attempt to keep Morales in power.

For three weeks, Bolivians protested relentlessly against Morales’s regime all over the country. Most of the protests were peaceful, but many turned violent. Members of the Movement for Socialism Party (MAS) had their houses burned and attacked. Vinto Mayor Patrice Arce was taken from her office and dragged through the streets where protestors covered her in red paint and cut her hair. At least 31 people have died and hundreds have been injured since the protests began. Morales eventually succumbed to the protests, stepped down from the presidency, and fled to Mexico.

Jeanine Anez, a strict Christian and right wing Senator, declared herself as interim president following the election. Anez promised her objective as interim president was just to call for new elections, but her actions have differed from her rhetoric. Within a week, Anez personally appointed and replaced Bolivia’s military brass, cabinet ministers, and heads of state-owned companies. She is also pushing her own political agenda and Christian practices by using the Bible and Cross to swear in ministers regardless of the fact that Bolivia is a secular state. In addition, her administration is threatening to arrest lawmakers and allies of the previous government.

Bolivia’s political system has been turned on its head over the last few months. Although Morales is out of office, civil unrest and mistrust in the government remains. The new presidential election is scheduled for later this year, but it is unclear who will be elected into power. Morales has stated he wishes to come back to the country and finish his term, but Anez has passed a law limiting presidential term limits to two years. Only time will tell if Bolivia can finally evade political corruption and embrace democracy.

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