Last Sunday, Bolivians went the polls to choose whether or not they would approve proposed changes to their constitution. But while they’ve done so before, the stakes were higher this time.
Located in western South America, Bolivia is a landlocked nation of around 11 million people. 60% of the country’s population are ethically indigenous, and indigenous culture is still ubiquitous in Bolivia. While much of the country’s land is composed of Amazon rainforest, most of the population is concentrated in Bolivia’s high plateau–the Altiplano. Flanked on either side by the Andes mountains, the Altiplano is one of the highest plateau’s in the world. La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, is the world’s highest capital city at an elevation of 3640m (11,942 ft). Despite its high elevation, La Paz is a bustling metropolis. And in a clear sign of the importance of the referendum, walls and buildings across the city are covered in political graffiti.
The crux of the proposed changes to the constitution is a provision allowing Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president, to seek re-election in 2019. In power since 2005, Morales would not be allowed to run again under current rules. Consequently, this referendum has largely boiled down whether Bolivians are satisfied with Morales or whether they want a new president in 2019. So what did they choose? Preliminary results indicate that, by a tiny margin, Bolivians have voted “No” to the constitutional changes. They’ve decided not to give Morales his coveted fourth term.
Following a string of electoral victories, this defeat is a blow to Morales’ Movement for Socialism Party. Since he took power with his socialist program in 2005, Bolivia has seen significant progress. Natural resources have been nationalized to fund social programs, the GDP has grown threefold, poverty rates have plummeted, and the constitution has been amended to give greater recognition to indigenous communities. As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales is wildly popular among the poor and those living in rural areas.
But he has his critics. With corruption rife throughout the government, he has been attacked for his weak response to the issue. He is also embroiled in a scandal in which he is accused of helping an ex-lover to accrue valuable government contracts for her company. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his opponents accuse him of authoritarian tendencies, asserting that he is using this referendum as an attempt to undermine democracy and consolidate his rule.
His critics most certainly have a point. Already on his third term, Morales has technically exceeded the constitutional maximum of two terms per president. But a controversial ruling before the previous election decided that he was eligible for a third term. Why? Because in a 2009 referendum, Morales succeeded in passing significant changes to Bolivia’s constitution. In accordance with the egalitarian tradition of the Movement for Socialism, it, among other things, renamed the country to “Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia” to recognize its multi-ethnic heritage. As a result, it was decided that Morales could run for a third term because it would only be his second term under the new constitution.
By the end of his third term, Morales will have been in power for 14 years. While they will have been a 14 years of consistent progress, they will also have allowed Morales to slowly increase his power through the entrenchment and consolidation that accompany any longtime ruler. Thus while one may argue that Morales provides a better future for Bolivia than the fragmented and ineffective opposition, perhaps it is time for that opposition to be given a chance to organize itself into a viable alternative for Bolivia. It is this narrative that Bolivians have chosen. While many will be bitterly disappointed to see their effective and beloved ruler go, even more will be relieved that the country has chosen to deny Morales the chance to consolidate his rule any further than he already has.