Editorial Note: This post is a response to an essay by Andrew Arato which can be found here.
The events in Bolivia continue to arouse sharp controversy over the ways political power can change (Arato, Peruzzotti and Avritzer). The so-called “transitional government” of Jeanine Añez claims legitimacy for having deposed a dictator, while the ousted government of President Evo Morales says it has been victim of a coup d’etat.
First and foremost, I believe this is chiefly a political discussion about a model of developing democracy, rather than a technical debate about how some liberal democratic institutions work. What is at stake in Bolivia is a sharp dispute for power, in the broadest sense of the word, that has a long history behind it and that had a decisive turning point with the victory of Evo Morales in 2006 and the approval of a new constitution in 2009.
The aim of Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo [MAS] (Movement towards Socialism) was always to achieve a regime change in Bolivia, in order to move away from precarious democracy, a product of the transition of the 1980s, towards a social democracy, thereby vindicating the majority of Bolivians in a class-based and ethnic manner, and including their communal ancient traditions. For this, he approved in a Constituent Assembly and carried forward a democratic design that combines participation with representation, that is to say, he sought to establish a new hegemony, different and an alternative to the previous one that had dominated Bolivia for most of most of its republican history.
Despite the fact that, given the current post-Cold War situation in the Latin American region, it is not a violent, but rather a democratic change, I believe that it can, because of its scope, be seen as a revolutionary change. It is different, of course, to Bolshevik-type revolutions, because it does not involve the elimination of those who would be enemies after the political victory, but rather a plural system is put forward in which the opposition is conceived as an adversary. Here, in the maintenance of political plurality, lies the fundamental problem of this and other processes of change in Latin America in recent decades.
This new hegemonic situation, carried forward democratically through grassroots mobilization and elections, was heatedly rejected by the social sectors and their previously dominant political expression, but which was unable to articulate an effective opposition because of the overwhelming electoral majorities achieved by Evo Morales. However, they did attempt armed uprisings that fortunately were unsuccessful.
It is within this process of change-of-hegemony that the issue of presidential reelection arises, which is not only Bolivian but also similar to the other processes of change in Latin America. Here we have the problem of the caudillo, who, with all the strengths and weaknesses, has been essential in leading the various transformation proposals. This is the role of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, Lula, Chávez, Correa, Pepe Mujica and Evo Morales; it is not a coincidence that these all occurred within a historic period, but rather a response to the need to lead various hegemonic coalitions that aim at transforming their countries. A need, it is true, that arises from institutional weakness, especially serious in Bolivia. Political necessity, however, is followed by the age-old problem of the caudillo, who often considers himself irreplaceable and seeks endless reelection.
In 2017, Evo Morales carries out a political maneuver to achieve further reelection which the 2009 Constitution had prohibited and against which the Bolivian people demonstrated in a referendum in 2016, called for at the behest of the government itself. For this, it turns to the Constitutional Court, which rules in its favor, indicating that if he is prevented from standing, it would be a violation of his right to political participation. The legality of this resolution is controversial, the opposition reports it as a constitutional violation issued by a court controlled by Morales. Nevertheless, the Organization of American States (AOS) itself, not kindly disposed towards regimes of change in Latin America, does not obstruct Morales’ participation in the electoral process. Over and beyond the legal controversy, I believe it was a serious political mistake not to heed the referendum results and to stand for presidential election for the fourth time. The difficulties in dealing with the issue of political plurality once more became manifest.
Then the elections come which, according to the results of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Morales wins by more than ten points (46% to 36% approximately). And nobody, not even the OAS itself, was able to identify that there had been fraud in a report that took more than a month to issue. Under these circumstances, after violent mobilizations from the opposition and multiple threats to government supporters, we have the intervention of the Armed Forces and the National Police of Bolivia to force Evo Morales out of office. Taking advantage of this power vacuum, Jeanine Añez, a lady of a right wing party, which got 4% of the vote in the previous election, declares herself president.
What do we have here? Undoubtedly a coup against a democratically elected President, whose term was to end in late January 2020. It is clear that, no matter how much political maneuvering he did, he was not a dictator, but rather a president who did not know how to manage the relations with his opposition, to the point of bringing the situation to an unmanageable polarization. But this is not the underlying problem. The problem is that of a counter-revolution, which is today expressed as a coup, but which aims to halt the transformation developed by Morales and the MAS from 2006 onwards.
In these circumstances, Bolivia’s immediate future is very challenging. The aim of the present government is to proscribe MAS and of Evo Morales from participation in Bolivian politics. The former would invalidate any electoral process and will certainly be difficult to accomplish. The latter, above and beyond the fact that Morales will not stand in the next elections, is already being implemented through the political persecution begun by the government of Añez and which prevents Morales from doing politics inside Bolivia.
Therefore, it is not simply a problem of achieving a negotiated transition to take to the next elections, but rather of a strategy to dismantle the political and military correlation of the far-right that opposes the transformation of Bolivia into a democratic regime where the vote of the majority is respected.
Nicolás Lynch is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Lima, Perú.