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After Bolivia’s longtime president Evo Morales resigned in the wake of the 2019 elections, accusations of vote counting fraud wracked the country, and Bolivia plunged into a period of intense polarization. A long-standing divide between followers of Morales and his Indigenous political movement and the traditional sociopolitical elite of the country reached a breaking point. The coronavirus pandemic only further turned up the temperature of Bolivia’s fraught political life. Yet in late 2020, successful presidential elections returned Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS, or Movement for Socialism) to power, though under the new leadership of President Luis Arce. Whether this leadership finds ways to alleviate Bolivia’s harsh divide while simultaneously tackling enormous economic pressures resulting from the pandemic will determine whether Bolivia’s polarization erupts again in newly destructive ways or stays under control.

The Core Divide

Bolivia lives with a fundamental socioeconomic and sociocultural divide between a non-Indigenous urban elite, especially from the country’s eastern departments, and a large Indigenous and Mestizo population. In the 2000s, this divide rose in prominence in the country’s political life when a broad-based Indigenous movement, the MAS, led by Morales, successfully mobilized to win elections, starting with the 2005 election of Morales to the presidency.

After some years of relatively contained polarization between the two contending sides, the core political fissure began to heat up in 2016. Determined to hold power beyond the established constitutional limit, Morales put before the country a referendum on whether he could run for a fourth term. To the shock of Morales and his core followers, Morales lost the referendum, obtaining 49 percent of the vote. Opposition to Morales’s reelection came from the traditional elites as well as the eastern departments that resisted the MAS government from the very beginning. But the government had also accumulated various, seemingly unconnected groups of detractors over the years, including sectors of the urban middle class, some student and women’s movements, and Indigenous groups that opposed the government’s extractive approach to economic development. While some of these challengers rejected the MAS’s project altogether, others simply demanded less personalism and more competition within the party.

Carla Alberti
Carla Alberti is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and a Young Researcher at the Millennium Institute for Foundational Research on Data.

A second key polarizing event took place the following year, when the Constitutional Tribunal decided that the limits imposed on the reelection of Morales hindered his right to political participation. A year later, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal allowed Morales to compete in the 2019 elections, a ruling that exacerbated the existing divisions, sparking protests in the main cities of the country and an opposition call for a national strike.

The 2019 elections took place in this deeply polarized environment. Some public opinion polls prior to the election showed a narrowing gap between Morales and his main opponent, former president Carlos Mesa of the coalition Comunidad Ciudadana, raising tensions about the voting process. The presidential elections were held as scheduled, but they took a dramatic turn when the Electoral Tribunal stopped reporting the vote count for twenty-four hours. When the counting resumed, Morales jumped ahead. Accusations of electoral fraud spread rapidly, fueling protests and popular discontent. The main opposition leaders demanded new elections. The Organization of American States raised serious concerns about the fairness of the electoral process, a position it later reaffirmed after auditing the elections.

Mobilizations grew violent as groups of protesters began facing off against each other. The situation worsened when the police rebelled against the government in several of the main cities of the country. The army followed suit and “suggested” the president leave office. Faced with this scenario, Morales and former vice president Álvaro García Linera announced their decision to resign and accused their opponents of manufacturing a crisis to justify a coup. The president and his closest collaborators were offered asylum by the Mexican government and left the country. Morales stayed in Mexico for about a month and then took refuge in Argentina, where he stayed until returning to Bolivia in November 2020, following Arce’s victory.

Filling the presidential vacancy in the wake of Morales’s departure was no easy task, as the MAS legislators who, according to the constitution, could have been chosen to step in had also resigned. In the absence of MAS legislators, the parliament nominated as Morales’s successor Interim President Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing senator from the eastern department of Beni and the second vice president of the senate. The roles Áñez and Luis Fernando Camacho—the leader of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, a powerful organization in the prosperous Santa Cruz department and the bastion of the opposition to Morales’s rule—played in this crisis embody the deep-seated regional cleavage between eastern elites and the Andean-based MAS.

Polarization did not end with the establishment of a transitional government. The first weeks of the new administration saw a particularly intense period of mobilization by Morales’s supporters, who were, in turn, repressed by the police and the military. Violence was particularly acute in towns such as Senkata, El Alto, on the outskirts of the capital; La Paz; and Sacaba in the Chapare Province, where military and police operations resulted in several deaths and scores of injured protesters. Nationally, Decree 4078, which was later rescinded, shielded police and military forces from any criminal responsibility.

The interim president also agreed with MAS politicians on a timetable to hold new general elections, which would exclude Morales as a contender. Her administration nevertheless did much more than just manage a transitional government. Surprisingly, on a number of issues, her government did not depart dramatically from the MAS and maintained subsidies and social programs. However, on many others, Áñez’s policies reflected the deep political fractures in Bolivian society, which were especially evident in her harsh rhetoric toward countries governed by left-wing parties, such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Venezuela. More importantly, the interim government formally accused Morales of terrorism and sedition and initiated criminal investigations against numerous MAS politicians. Signaling her political ambition, Áñez, who had committed to leading a transitional government, decided to run for president in the new general elections. 

Enter the Pandemic

Amid this unstable political scenario, the coronavirus pandemic hit Bolivia particularly hard, exacerbating polarization and the existing political and social crisis. One of the main issues that generated societal discontent was the government’s decision to delay the elections twice. Originally scheduled for May 2020, the elections were pushed first to September and later to October 18, the date on which they were actually held. Although this situation was justified by the complicated public health situation in the country, detractors of the interim government saw it as an attempt by Áñez to prolong her time in power and use her position to improve her chances as a presidential candidate. This spurred a new wave of protests. Demonstrators blockaded the main roads in the country, which the government claimed was the main cause of the shortage of oxygen and other medical supplies.

The tensions continued brewing as the numbers of coronavirus infections and related deaths rose alarmingly. Even the president and some of her ministers came down with COVID-19. While the interim government blamed the precarious state of the public health system on the incompetence of the Morales administration, MAS supporters criticized the president’s policies aimed at containing the spread of the virus and mitigating the economic effects these measures, especially the strict lockdowns, had on the poorest households. A corruption scandal related to the purchase of overpriced ventilators further complicated matters for the government and ended with then minister of health, Marcelo Navajas, under arrest.

At the same time, friction between the interim government and the MAS-majority legislative body made it difficult to coordinate and implement adequate measures to fight the pandemic. For instance, the interim government refused to enact a series of laws passed by the legislature, which were intended to deal with the pandemic and its economic effects. Similarly, the legislature approved the use of chlorine dioxide as a treatment for COVID-19, even when the Health Ministry had warned against its use on multiple occasions.

The new presidential elections were held under convoluted and tense circumstances. In addition to Áñez, the three other main contenders included the two political coalitions that had competed in 2019—the MAS, with Arce as its presidential candidate, and Comunidad Ciudadana, led by Mesa—and a third force, Creemos, which emerged as a result of the crisis. Lagging far behind the other candidates in opinion polls, Áñez decided to withdraw about a month before the electoral race, claiming that only a united opposition could defeat the MAS candidates.

The results proved Áñez right, although only partially. A fragmented opposition did favor Arce. But the MAS’s decisive first-round victory, in which it obtained 55 percent of the votes and majorities in both chambers, signaled that a large share of the electorate still supported the party’s policies, even though it did not support the prior concentration of power in the hands of Morales.

Risks Ahead

Although the election of a new government put an end to a turbulent year, the political and societal tensions that crystalized in this crisis are not likely to fade away easily. Moreover, the new MAS administration will face numerous internal and external challenges that, if not properly addressed, could spell trouble for democracy in Bolivia.

The high level of polarization is the first and most obvious risk for Bolivian democracy. As the Arce administration prepared for its inauguration ceremony, protests unfolded throughout the country, primarily in the city of Santa Cruz, where demonstrators alleged electoral fraud and demanded new elections. At the same time, the MAS-controlled legislature announced legal actions against Áñez and some of her ministers for the repression against protesters in the aftermath of the 2019 electoral crisis. These tensions and the government’s lack of legitimacy in a rather radicalized sector of the population may put in danger a fragile societal truce and democratic stability.

Arce has established a new government while keeping some distance from Morales. Arce and his vice president have demarcated clear boundaries for Morales’s role in their government, emphasizing their autonomy. If they retreat from this distance, discontent from the opposition—as well as those who voted for the MAS but rejected Morales’s fourth term—may surge. This is especially true now that Morales is back in the country and has resumed his role as the president of the MAS. He is such a powerful political figure that it is still uncertain how his presence will affect not only the new government but also Bolivian democracy more broadly.

Additionally, considering that the new MAS government will have to continue fighting the pandemic and working to improve a dire economic situation, any ineffectiveness resulting from conflicts within the ruling coalition will likely contribute to the delegitimization of Arce’s administration among the opposition, and thus serve as a justification for some segments of society to take their discontent to the streets. This puts a heavy weight on Arce’s leadership skills to manage the party and the public health situation.

Reducing Tensions

In this context, it is important that Arce and his collaborators take several concrete and symbolic measures to reduce tensions. First, the MAS government should fulfill its commitment to govern for all Bolivians and eschew both divisive rhetoric and action. Second, and related, dialogue between the government and opposition will be of utmost importance to secure stability and prevent tensions from escalating. This is especially important in a context in which radicalized opposition groups in the city of Santa Cruz have mobilized, demanding the armed forces take control of the country. Additionally, focusing attention on sectors of society that supported Arce but demand more internal competition in the MAS party, especially in the urban areas, is fundamental for the new administration to reduce future tensions.

Third, the Arce government could work to regain citizens’ trust in the state and political institutions as the legitimate channels for societal demands. The events that transpired in the last months of 2019 resulted not only from an electoral crisis but also from a profound delegitimization of state institutions among certain groups. And finally, considering the armed forces’ politicized stance in the 2019 crisis, it is important that the new administration work to delineate and delimit the role the military, as well as the police, must play in a democratic society.

Carla Alberti is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and a Young Researcher at the Millennium Institute for Foundational Research on Data.