On 3 December, Bolivians took to the ballot boxes and the streets to express their discontent at a controversial Supreme Court (Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional, TCP) ruling made last week. The court’s decision allows incumbent President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019, and has faced heavy criticism from the opposition which has branded it unconstitutional.
The controversial ruling would allow incumbent President Evo Morales to run for election indefinitely. While it removes constitutional term limits from all elected officials, the main purpose of the ruling was most probably to enable a continuation of Morales’ presidency until at least 2025.
In Sunday’s judicial elections, less than one third of the votes went to regime candidates, dealing an embarrassing blow to the president. Citizens were asked to vote for 95 candidates running for 26 judicial positions. In 2011, Bolivia introduced a unique system of direct elections for most of the main courts, including the constitutional court and the Supreme Court.
Spoilt ballots show citizens’ discontent
With most of the votes counted, it is already clear that the winner of the election is the null vote (53%), which was championed by most opposition parties and a series of former presidents to protest last week’s court ruling.
Together with blank votes, 68% of the votes did not go to any of the regime candidates, showing the widespread frustration with oficialismo—as Bolivians refer to the increasingly authoritarian government apparatus and its party-liners.
In the end, 20 of the 26 officials elected to the courts have ties to his ruling party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS), and as there is no minimum threshold to invalidate the outcome, Morales’ oficialismo technically won the elections.
Nevertheless, having received less than one third of the vote, the legitimacy of the election has been severely strained. While the government was quick to downplay the importance of the results, the opposition and numerous political observers consider this a major blow to the Morales administration.
It is likely that citizens used the election to express their discontent with recent political developments in the country, with concerns that Morales might attempt to stay in power for yet another term.
Morales’ pursuit of re-election
In power since 2006, Morales introduced a new constitution in 2009 which put in place a limit of two presidential terms. Nevertheless, he ran for a third term in 2015, arguing that his first term preceded the constitutional rewrite.
Few observers doubt his ambitions to run for a fourth term in 2019, although Morales himself is ambiguous on the issue, likely for strategic reasons.
On 21 February 2016, Bolivians took to the polls in a heated referendum aimed at allowing Morales to run indefinitely. However, the attempt to extend his grip on power even longer saw many citizens lose their patience with oficialismo’s increasingly totalitarian leanings. With voter turnout high at 85%, Morales narrowly lost the referendum, commonly referred to as ’21F’.
Since then, the government has changed course from accepting the result to openly challenging it, delegitimising the referendum as non-binding or blaming “imperialist forces” for the defeat—a rhetoric common to Morales. The political row culminated in a legal challenge to scrap the constitutional term limit.
The ruling faced opposition both domestically and globally. Protesters rallied across the country and took to social media to express their discontent. Ex-president Carlos Mesa called the ruling a “rupture of the democratic order” and Luis Almagro, president of the OAS (Organization of American States) rejected the ruling publicly.
A polarised country with a polarising president
Since he took office in 2006, Morales has faced heavy opposition, mainly from the wealthier eastern departments of the country, as well as political opponents to his radical project of indigenous socialism and plurinationalism.
While he has achieved real progress on many social issues and remains a powerful symbol of indigenous empowerment, his populist government style has many worried that these advances come at the expense of deteriorating democratic norms.
Bolivia es el país que más ha consultado al pueblo, esperamos una masiva participación, cada uno tiene el derecho de votar por quien desee. En esta elección, con nuestro voto cambiaremos la justicia boliviana. pic.twitter.com/9GpaHjbbdW
— Evo Morales Ayma (@evoespueblo) December 3, 2017
In a sign that he is increasingly detached from his electorate, Morales showed complete unwillingness to acknowledge the implications of Sunday’s judicial election results. He and his vice president, Álvaro García, reportedly compared the vote to a football match and ridiculed the opposition for not reaching 70% against the oficialismo candidates.
Considering that their own candidates received less than a third, it is hard to follow the logic behind such statements.
In the midst of these developments, even traditional allies are turning from Morales, such as the leader of the chief trade union federation, Guido Mitma. With elections coming up in 2019, Morales and proponents of his political project will need more than just subservient judges if they are to stay in power.
As the country’s first indigenous president, Morales has enjoyed wider and more sustained public support than any other politician in Bolivia. Nevertheless, it would be a fallacy to assume that public opinion will never sway.