Morales Moves Ahead With His Divisive Re-Election Bid in Bolivia


Bolivian President Evo Morales marked the 13th anniversary of his presidency this week as he prepares a controversial run for a fourth consecutive term in office. Bolivia’s top electoral court has upheld his right to run in October, even though Morales is term-limited by the constitution and his attempt to amend the constitution was rejected in a 2016 referendum. In an email interview with WPR, Martín Mendoza-Botelho, a professor of political science, philosophy and geography at Eastern Connecticut State University, discusses the implications of Morales’ attempt to cling to power and explains why he is still favored to win despite the unpopularity of his re-election bid.

World Politics Review: On what grounds did Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Court rule in Morales’ favor, and what does that decision say about the independence of Bolivia’s judiciary?

Martín Mendoza-Botelho: The decision of Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Court simply reinforces a more controversial and clearly anti-constitutional verdict delivered by the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal in November 2017 that allowed Morales to run for a fourth term. The main argument of the Constitutional Tribunal was that not allowing Morales to participate in another election denied him a fundamental human right. Both decisions contravene the results of a national referendum carried out in February 2016, in which 51.3 percent of the Bolivian electorate rejected a potential fourth term for Morales.

The role of the Electoral Court is not to decide constitutional issues. Instead it has the right to approve or deny the participation of candidates and/or political parties in electoral processes. The rulings are mostly based on specific electoral regulations, for example validating that candidates fulfill basic requirements such as nationality and age, among other things. In this instance, Morales met all the relevant electoral requirements. There was the possibility, however, that the Electoral Court might take a political stand against registering Morales as a candidate, thereby challenging the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal. In other words, the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal forced the Electoral Court to assume a political position, either challenging the previous verdict or accepting it. The court opted for the latter.

This latest ruling is not entirely surprising and shows the chronic weakness of institutions in Bolivia, much of which has to do with how officials are selected to serve in these institutions. For both the Constitutional Tribunal and the Electoral Court, this happens via validation in congress, leaving the whole system prone to political manipulation by the ruling party—currently Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS. What is surprising in this case, however, is both the blunt way in which an electoral result—the referendum—was ignored and the lack of coherent arguments to justify a fourth mandate for Morales.

WPR: To what extent has Morales’ decision to seek a fourth term undermined his traditional support base among Bolivia’s indigenous population?

Mendoza-Botelho: This is a complex question in the sense that the label “indigenous population” refers to a wide array of ethnic communities distributed in different regions throughout the country. When observing the political culture of some of the larger indigenous groups, such as those of the Aymara and Quechua communities in the Andes, a fundamental principle is rotational leadership. Male members of these indigenous communities—and, to a lesser extent, women—face high expectations for civic participation, in what is known as the “Cargo” system. According to this system, young males are expected to serve the community in different ways for specific periods, so individuals that overextend their mandate violate a community practice. On the other hand, indigenous groups favor the prevalence of traditional and stable leadership, and those deemed to be fit for that role are encouraged to continue if they are perceived to be performing as expected. Clearly, Morales is violating the cultural norm of rotation in terms of leadership.

Beyond the cultural expectations, and generally speaking, Morales’ relationship with indigenous groups has deteriorated over the past few years and become more conflictual, although the dynamic varies across communities and regions due to the varying political agendas among communities in the area of Chapare, Morales’ stronghold, and those of traditional indigenous groups in the Andes and low lands. In many communities, loyalties are divided, with people supportive of MAS but critical of Morales. Moreover, conflict over recent plans to build a road through indigenous territories in the protected Amazon region known as TIPNIS has diminished trust for Morales among some indigenous peoples. As a result, the reaction to Morales’ decision to run for a fourth term varies not only between indigenous groups, but also within indigenous groups. Although he still has some level of support, most visible in the Andes, some groups are not entirely satisfied with his decision to run. However, it is possible that many indigenous groups will support his candidacy, particularly because of the lack of an opposition that incorporates their demands.

WPR: What is the current state of the Bolivian opposition? How meaningful of a challenge will they be able to pose to Morales in the next election?

Mendoza-Botelho: Perhaps one of the areas in which Morales and MAS have been most politically successful is maintaining the opposition’s divisions. Currently, there are many names under consideration for potential opposition candidates. Among the most prominent is Carlos Mesa, a former president and vice president, but the list is long. The opposition’s problem is that they propose starkly different agendas and appeal to different constituencies. Mesa is currently ahead in the polls, in part due to his prestige as a former television journalist. He appeals mostly to the urban middle class, but his relatively short presidency—he decided to resign in October 2003 after only 14 months in office due to the impossibility of solving the ongoing political and economic crisis at the time—does not necessarily inspire confidence among many voters. Other potential candidates are perceived as leaders returning from some sort of political retirement and not necessarily as strong contenders with a cohesive political platform. Others have some support in their home regions, but at this point it is difficult to imagine some sort of unified opposition under a single banner.

This situation gives Morales the upper hand, given his control of state resources and a well-established political party with a solid presence in practically the entire country. MAS also governs a large number of municipalities, giving it direct influence at the local level, which could be key to securing the presidency. As a result, although Morales might not secure a clear victory in the first round, he is in better shape than most of his contenders to win the second-round runoff. If the opposition manages to coalesce into at least a semi-unified coalition that concentrates the anti-Morales vote, it might have a chance to pose a threat to Morales, but that is not the case at the moment.