The current political crisis in Bolivia has led to nationwide protests that the United Nations warned Saturday could ‘spin out of control’ as the death toll rises. The increasingly complex situation in Bolivia reached the international scene during the turbulent electoral victory of Evo Morales in late October, which received cries of electoral fraud and eventually led to his resignation. So now, after weeks of protest, what is happening in Bolivia, and why have the people, police and military taken to the streets in protests after decades of relative peace?

Political Climate in Bolivia

One of the most important aspects of the political climate of Bolivia is its multiethnicity. That stems from a history of Spanish colonialism, which has led to ongoing racial and social segregation. Most issues in Bolivia break down along a line of separation between the white elite and the rest of the country, who are mainly poor, indigenous and rural.

“Tensions between the two groups have driven politics in Bolivia for quite some time," Jason Seawright, a political science professor at Northwestern University specializing in Latin America, said. "What we’re seeing right now is very likely the same set of tensions playing out again.”

Who is Evo Morales?

Evo Morales came to power in 2005 as Bolivia’s first indigenous leader and head of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. The left wing president nationalized the country’s oil and gas industries, signed into law a land reform bill that redistributed unproductive land to the poor and adopted anti-neoliberalism policies. His administration saw an increase of economic stability during his presidency with poverty rates dropping more than 50% from a decade before in 2012. The country also saw significant gains in education, literacy rates and health care.  

While some of his supporters have lauded his efforts in indigenous rights and environmentalism, others criticized him for his shortcomings and his opponents have accused him of authoritarianism and radicalism. Regardless, he has been in power for nearly 14 years.

The Case of Term Limits

The current laws concerning term limits in Bolivia can be traced to the 2009 Constitution that was enacted by Morales after receiving approval in a nationwide referendum. Though the constitution established that presidents were limited to two consecutive 5-year terms, it has gone through many different changes and interpretations that have been a topic of contention in the last few years.

In 2013, the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal ruled that Morales was allowed to participate in the 2014 election because his first term preceded the current constitution. Morales won the election and began his ‘third’ term, or 8th year of presidency. In 2016, Morales held a referendum that would allow three consecutive presidential terms under the 2009 Constitution, but was voted down by a 51% majority. This didn’t deter Morales or the MAS. Later in the year, the MAS nominated Morales as their candidate for the 2019 election in another attempt to extend term limits. Ultimately, in November 2017, the Tribunal ruled that all public offices would have no term limits, arguing that according to the American Convention on Human Rights, term limits were a violation upon human rights of political involvement.

The Tribunal ruling, which directly contradicted the 2009 election, was in part due to the fact that, according to Seawright, the court is politically deferential to Morales.

“This is one of the areas where there isn’t a good separation of powers or checks and balances,” he said.

The 2019 Election

The new rulings sparked the widening of the country’s political cleavage as debates grew over the democratic implications around Morales not honoring the results of the referendum by running for a fourth term. Morales’ closest competitor was Carlos Mesa, the former president of Bolivia from 2003 to 2005 who resigned amidst a national oil conflict.

When the voting ended and Morales was declared victorious, the election faced accusations of manipulation and corruption. To break it down, it’s important to understand the vote count processes that are distinct to Bolivia and its electoral system.

“In Bolivia, the rule is that the president has to get 50 percent or more of the votes or win by a margin of at least 10% over the next competitor to become president,” Seawright said about the two-round electoral system.

More complicated is its two vote count processes.

“Bolivia has a fast vote count that’s not official, that gives people early results; a slow vote count that is official," Seawright said. "And the tradition in Bolivia is to stop the fast vote count when the slow vote count starts."

Accusations of fraud happened when the publication of the fast vote count stopped with Morales in the lead but below the 10% margin. It restarted 24 hours later with Morales well over the margin, Seawright said.

“The thing that no one disagrees about is that Morales has the most votes,” Seawright said. “The debate is only about whether or not he got enough votes to win in one round or whether there needed to be a runoff election between him and the next competitor.”

Poll Result Protests

The 24 hour pause in the transmission of results raised doubts over their legitimacy. In early November, the Organization of American States (OAS) published a monitoring report that claimed there were ‘clear manipulations’ and recommended a new election. However, other external reviews, such as the Center for Economic and Policy Research, found that the OAS had no evidence to support their claims of manipulation. Weeks later, the question of electoral fraud still remains unanswered.

The Election’s Aftermath

Ultimately, the uncertainty surrounding the legitimacy of the votes was enough to send protesters to the streets, sparking riots and clashes between supporters and opponents of Morales. Two weeks after the disputed election, the Bolivian police joined protests against President Morales and requested that he resign. Though Morales has consistently denied claims of election manipulation and refused to step down amidst the turmoil, on Nov. 10, he agreed to call for a new election after pressures from international monitors. A few hours later, the army chief in Bolivia urged Morales to step down. And on that same day, after facing protests and losing support from the armed forces and the police, President Evo Morales resigned after nearly 14 years of power. He was also accompanied by several other high-level politicians. A day later, he fled to Mexico where he was offered political asylum.

His resignation caused further clashes on the streets and left a political vacuum that was later filled by the right-wing deputy head of Bolivia’s Senate, Jeanine Áñez, who offered herself as interim president until the new elections occur. Since then, she has called for the prosecution of Morales should he return to Bolivia.

Where Bolivia Stands Now

The transfer of power has caused both celebration and protests in Bolivia. The country has seen increasingly violent clashes between pro-Morales demonstrators and the police, with the death toll rising to 23 as of Monday. Bolivian officials have had to fly in supplies following food and fuel shortages in the capital city La Paz.

As violence continued in Bolivia, Áñez issued a decree on Nov. 14 that allowed military crackdown on protests without any criminal responsibility. Many pro-Morales supporters and people on social media have condemned Áñez for her handling of current protests, calling the situation a violation of human rights. With the majority of Morales’s supporters being indigenous, some have called into question the role of race and ethnicity as the military continues to violently suppress protests. There are also worries that military involvement in politics could lead to a dictatorship or military rule.

“However democratic Bolivia may have been two weeks ago, it’s clearly far less democratic today with military crackdown,” Seawright said.

The interim president herself is now facing demands to resign. But on Sunday, Áñez said that new elections will be held ‘soon.’

So what does the future of Bolivia look like amidst the violence and confusion? No one really knows.

“There’s an awful lot of uncertainty and an awful lot of paths to get out of this,” Seawright said.