In Brief

Bolivia’s Power Vacuum: What to Know

Election fraud allegations have prompted President Evo Morales to resign with no clear successor, plunging Bolivia into political uncertainty.

Longtime President Evo Morales has fled to Mexico, leaving behind a deeply divided country and an unclear line of succession. For now, the military appears to be a major arbiter of political power.

What happened?

Morales’s alleged manipulation of the October 20 presidential election sparked weeks of widespread protests. Demonstrators, including members of the national police, called for a rerun and an independent audit as opportunists looted and vandalized property.

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Political Transitions

Hoping to weather the storm of unrest, Morales denounced the uprising as a coup designed to topple the will of the people. After the Organization of American States (OAS) identified election irregularities in favor of Morales, he offered a new round of voting as a concession.

However, Bolivia’s military called on him to step down “for the maintenance of stability.” As support withered from his party and base, including labor unions, Morales resigned and accepted asylum in Mexico. On Tuesday, opposition leader Jeanine Anez Chavez declared herself acting president in what many Morales supporters have decried as a coup.

A woman removes posters of Morales from a wall.
A woman removes posters of Morales the day after his resignation. Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images

Why was the election contested?

Morales faced a tight reelection race against former President Carlos Mesa. Initial results showed that Morales obtained a plurality of votes but not the majority required for him to claim outright victory. As the need for a runoff became apparent, Bolivia’s national electoral authority abruptly stopped updating the vote tallies on October 21.

When it released revised results the next day, Morales had won by a sufficient margin to avoid a runoff. In a report [PDF] from the OAS, the regional bloc noted additional concerns, including ballot stuffing and the use of an unauthorized, offshore server. 

Many say Morales’s presence on the ballot was itself a subversion of democracy. Bolivia’s constitution limits presidents to two terms, though Morales managed a third on a technicality. In 2016, Bolivians narrowly voted against allowing him to seek a fourth term. However, Bolivia’s top court—packed with Morales loyalists—ruled that term limits violated the president’s human rights. The court also declared that the unfavorable referendum results were the product of U.S. imperialism. This paved the way for Morales’s latest election campaign, which was widely viewed as unconstitutional.

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Bolivia

Demonstrations and Protests

Political Transitions

What is Morales’s legacy?

Morales, a former trade unionist and leader of the country’s coca farmers, rose to global prominence after orchestrating mass protests that toppled Bolivia’s democratically elected government in 2005. The following year, he became the country’s first indigenous president.

Like other leftist heads of state who came to power during Latin America’s pink tide, Morales rode the boom of commodities, particularly natural gas, and invested heavily in curbing poverty and boosting literacy. He also sought to reduce U.S. influence and protect Bolivia’s natural resources from exploitation. At the same time, however, he instituted land-use policies that critics say facilitated slash-and-burn agriculture and contributed to widespread wildfires.

This most recent debacle closes Morales’s tenure in ignominy. Notwithstanding his accomplishments and enduring popularity among the country’s indigenous voters, his antidemocratic turn and polarizing rhetoric leave Bolivia deeply divided as it attempts to restore the constitutional order.

What comes next?

Morales’s resignation has left a power vacuum in Bolivia’s executive branch, with no line of succession apparent. Anez must be confirmed by the two houses of the legislature, both of which are controlled by Morales’s party. His loyalists boycotted the session to confirm Anez, leaving her without legislative legitimacy.

Reinstating democratic processes will be a top priority to placate protesters, and Anez has just ninety days to organize a new presidential election. The goodwill of the military’s rank and file will go a long way in helping Bolivia’s next president establish order. Losing their confidence was the final nail in the coffin of Morales’s presidency, and his resignation highlights that the military remains an arbiter of political power. In the short term, security forces face the challenge of quelling unrest.

Morales’s departure further isolates his socialist allies in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Yet, with unrest distracting many Latin American governments, it remains unclear whether Morales’s defeat will help move the dial toward democracy in the region.

David Gevarter contributed to this piece.

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