Is the legitimacy of Bolivian democracy in danger?

By Brynna Boyer

Just this week, Bolivia suffered from an explosion at the headquarters of Movimiento al Socialismo in La Paz. The attack is thought to have been targeting President-Elect Luis Arce, who was attending a party meeting when the blast occurred. That same day, right-wing protests began to show dissent towards the new left-wing leadership of Bolivia.

With the backdrop of a left-wing landslide election and the homecoming of former President Evo Morales, who was driven out last November, is this attack merely an isolated even, or does it hold serious implications for the future of Bolivia and its precarious democracy? 

The attack on Arce and his party occurred on the same day that right-wing groups were protesting to demand an overturn of the October presidential election results, or in other words, a nullification of Arce’s legitimacy as the democratically elected leader of Bolivia.  

No one was injured by the attack on Thursday. However, the implications of such a brazen action against the newly elected leader and his party cannot be taken lightly. The opposition party to Arce and MAS during the October elections has offered no statement of condemnation in the days following the attack, leading to speculation that political violence against the legitimately elected president will not end with the failed dynamite explosion.  

This past October, Arce won a landslide victory in the Bolivian presidential election, gaining 55% of the vote and securely establishing his legitimacy as the leader of Bolivia. The party to which Arce belongs is the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo, and it is with this important victory that hope for a pink-wave, a movement against right-wing totalitarian regimes within not just Bolivia but rather all of Latin America, is being sustained. 

In November 2019, Evo Morales, who belongs to the MAS party, ran for an unprecedented fourth term as President of Bolivia to extend his 14 years in power. A fourth term exceeds the term limits set by the Bolivian constitutionbut Morales was hoping to overturn the law by holding a referendum to amend the constitution and secure his control over Bolivia.   

However, the Bolivian people did not vote in favour of the amendment, effectively denying Morales’ legitimacy should he run again. Morales campaigned despite this setback and seemed to be winning despite the controversy surrounding his authority. Then, in the midst of the election, a report by the Organisation of American States, a regional organisation that aims to support democracy within the Americas, found ‘clear manipulations’ of the voting system and could not verify Morales’s victory.  

Morales responded to this accusation of election fraud by calling for another round of elections, but he subsequently stepped down from power after the head of the army publicly called for him to abandon office. He was forced to flee to Mexico, and later Argentina, after he was informally deposed to escape prosecutions he faced in Bolivia. 

Bolivia was left on the verge of chaos as his supporters and adversaries clashed on the streets over the events surrounding his removal. Police urged La Paz residents to stay indoors and declared they were joining forces with the army to help quell the violence, as Morales’s abrupt exodus stirred fears of a power vacuum. 

Following the ejection of Morales, right-wing senator Jeanine Áñez declared herself the acting interim President of Bolivia until a new, ‘fair’ election could be scheduled. This did not sit well with supporters of the deposed regime, with many claiming Áñez and her party staged a coup to gain power for themselves, with no intention of relinquishing authority. This seemed more likely as the interim regime continued to delay presidential elections in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Bolivian presidential election finally occurred in October 2020, where Arce and the MAS party emerged victorious, restoring the country to the left-wing leadership of Morales. Following the victory, Arce has vowed to rebuild his country’s battered economy, revive ties with left-wing neighbours, and only serve one term, a move to quell Bolivians’ fear of another MAS dictator. 

Despite rather conciliatory policies, it will be difficult for Arce to distance himself from Morales and his controversial legacy. As they are both members of the same party, it is feared that Arce is little more than a puppet for Bolivia’s deposed former President. Despite this, Arce sought to publicly distance himself from the controversial former leader during the campaign and has remained adamant that there will be no role for Morales in his government.  

Adding to fears of Arce acting as a political puppet being manipulated by Morales and the MAS party, the beloved former president has returned to Bolivia, in an 800-vehicle convoy no less, after his sedition charges were dropped. The reappearance of such a charismatic yet controversial figure has stirred controversy among many Bolivians, with fears that Morales is merely biding his time until he is able to seize power once more and install himself as an illegitimate, dictatorial leader.

The current question on everyone’s minds is whether Bolivia’s newly elected MAS presidency will remain one where Arce maintains control, or if it will mutate into another iteration of the Morales regime. 

Arce’s time in office will be faced with many challenges, most evidently the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its economic implications for the South American country, as Bolivia currently bears the third-worst COVID death rate in the world. There is also right-wing disappointment at a MAS presidential victory, not to mention a possibility of confrontation within Arce’s own party from Morales and his loyal supporters.  

In the midst of such ongoing conflict in the political machine that is the Bolivian government, it cannot be assumed that an attack, such as the one on Thursday, is an isolated incident. Thankfully the explosion was not injurious, but that does not make it any less disturbing, as this past year has demonstrated that Bolivian democracy is in an extremely vulnerable position. This threat must be taken seriously, and Arce and the MAS party must be vigilant during this tumultuous period to ensure further brazen challenges to the legitimacy of their administration do not ensue.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.  

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