In October, Bolivia will hold a presidential election. It will be one of the most controversial in the country’s history.
First elected in 2006, current President Evo Morales — the first indigenous candidate to hold the country’s highest office— will be running for his fourth term.
Prior to 2009, the president was allowed to serve two nonconsecutive, five-year terms. Since the successful 2009 referendum to approve a new constitution, the president is now allowed to serve two consecutive terms, but no more. As Morales’ first term fell before the new constitution was passed, his initial stint in office was legally disregarded, and in the early 2009 election, Morales was re-elected with more than 64% of the vote.
In 2016, Morales proposed a constitutional amendment that would have scrapped term limits altogether. Though the vote was close, Bolivians narrowly rejected the amendment. Despite this, he took the matter to the country’s constitutional court, which overruled the plebiscite on the grounds that term limits violated the president’s human right to hold office.
Morales has been relatively successful in office, bringing political and economic stability. Since he assumed the presidency, Bolivia has averaged about 4.6% annual growth, more than twice the rate for the rest of Latin America. Likewise, the poverty rate dropped from 60% in 2006 to 37% as of last year. His supporters argue that now is not the time to stop such a productive presidency, while his detractors claim he is anti-democratic and running against the wishes of the people.
Former President Carlos Mesa is Morales’ chief competitor. Polls in August showed the two candidates neck-and-neck, meaning a runoff is probable. Regardless, given the fractious nature of the opposition and fervent rural support for the incumbent, Morales likely remains popular enough to be victorious, even though his approval rating was in the low-30% range in November.
As resistance has increased in opposition strongholds like Santa Cruz — the country’s largest and wealthiest region — expect civil unrest and possible economic tumult before and, assuming Morales wins, after the election to oppose his presidency. From the long-term perspective, a Morales victory could have concerning implications for the integrity of Bolivia’s democratic institutions.
Max is Foreign Brief's Chief Executive Officer. A Latin America specialist, Max is an expert in regional political and economic trends, focusing particularly on the Southern Cone.