A Democracy in Danger: The Right’s Coup in Bolivia

Written by: Daniel Zaydman

The last few months have been a tumultuous time for much of Latin America. Political unrest has swept the region, claiming Bolivia as its most recent victim. On November 10, former Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced out of office in a coup after election authorities claimed the most recent presidential election to be fraudulent. What has since been discovered, however, is that these claims are unfounded. To understand what really happened in Bolivia, one must first understand the country’s system of voting and counting votes. 

There are two rounds of voting in Bolivia’s presidential elections. If in the first round a candidate secures at least 50 percent of the vote or at least 40 percent with a 10 percentage point lead over the runner-up, then that candidate is proclaimed the victor. If the candidate is unable to secure either of those requirements, a second-round runoff occurs between the top two candidates. The country counts its votes through two systems. The first system is known as the Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares (TREP), otherwise known as the quick count, which was implemented as recommended by the Organization of American States (OAS) who oversees elections in Bolivia. The quick count delivers an incomplete and indefinite result of the election so that the media can inform the public of early results. The second system is the legally-binding official count, which determines the final election result and takes longer to announce. 

According to a report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), with 83.85 percent of the vote tallied through the quick count, Morales was ahead with 45.71 percent of the vote and his rival, former President Carlos Mesa of the centrist Comunidad Ciudadana Party, trailing at 37.84 percent. Since the difference in their vote totals was within 10 percentage points, preliminary reporting indicated that a second-round run-off was possible. However, with the quick count ending once 95.63 percent of votes were counted, Morales pulled ahead with a lead of 46.86 percent to Mesa’s 36.72. In the final, binding vote count, Morales was declared the victor with 47.08 percent of the vote, beating Mesa by over 10.5 percentage points. 

On October 21, the day after the election, the OAS Electoral Observation Mission issued a press release, expressing “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results [from the quick count] revealed after the closing of the polls.” They claimed, without statistical evidence, that the final vote count contained irregularities and urged local electoral authorities to take action.

In the CEPR report, however, it was found that the final vote result was not only possible but probable. In 500 statistical simulations run to determine the likely election result based on geographic voting trends in areas that had not yet released their final counts, the average margin of victory for Morales was found to be 10.35 percent, with 80 percent of the results falling between 10.30 and 10.40 percent. The CEPR quickly released a statement of their own, urging the OAS to retract their statement and accept the result of the election. The OAS ignored the CEPR’s findings and stood by their unfounded claims. Following several weeks of unrest in the country, Morales agreed to hold another election, just as his opponents had been demanding. That same day, however, he and his Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, resigned after pressure mounted from the military, along with the President of the Senate and the President of the Chamber of Deputies. Due to the constitutional line of succession being exhausted, Jeanine Añez of the right-wing Democratic Social Movement assumed duties as interim president, despite having no constitutional quorum. Morales has since spoken out against his political opponents to no avail. 

Despite the dismal end brought upon Morales’ presidency, the many great achievements of his administration must not be forgotten. 

Prior to winning his first term in 2006, Bolivia’s poverty rate was a staggering 60 percent and the country had some of the worst wealth inequality in the world. While operating under IMF loan agreements, Bolivia saw its GDP per capita dip to below 1980 levels in 2005, a year before Morales first came to power. Under the leadership of Morales and his Movement for Socialism Party (MAS), Bolivia underwent a miraculous economic transformation. Since 2006, real GDP per capita has increased by over 50 percent, twice the rate of growth for the Latin American and Caribbean region; minimum wage growth has outpaced inflation approximately threefold, and the rate of poverty has fallen to below 35 percent, with 15.2 percent living in extreme poverty compared to 37.7 percent in 2006. Bolivia’s strong economic growth has come in large part to the Morales administration’s decision to renationalize hydrocarbons in 2006, which increased government revenue nearly sevenfold from $731 million to $4.95 billion. This has helped lead the way for increased public investment and social spending, giving Bolivian citizens more purchasing power and strengthening domestic industry, both of which have directly alleviated poverty. 

In addition to implementing and overseeing a massive restructuring of the Bolivian economy, Morales’ presidency has had enormous symbolic significance. In a country with a majority indigenous population, Morales was the first president in Bolivia’s history to come from the indigenous community. Bolivia ratified a new Constitution under the Morales administration, directly incorporating Andean concepts and protections for the indigenous community and making the Wiphala, an indigenous multicolor flag, a national flag. While these actions may seem insignificant to some, they represent much more to the indigenous community that has suffered through generations of marginalization and discrimination from Bolivia’s colonizers. And with his community always in mind, Morales’ social democratic policies have been implemented with the goal of redistributing wealth and ownership to the indigenous people that for years were entrenched in poverty under the neoliberal model. 

The ousting of Morales is yet another example of the war waged by the Western economic hegemony on democratically elected, leftist leaders in Latin America. The OAS, which receives 60 percent of its funding from the United States, blatantly lied to the public and the United States and other powers in the region did nothing to stop them despite having the evidence to do so. Over the last 14 years, Evo Morales and MAS have run a wildly successful left-wing economic experiment that outperformed the neoliberal model the IMF had attempted to impose on the country decades before, lifting millions out of poverty and giving members of the country’s indigenous community the lives they deserve. Now, the country has a right-wing president who has tweeted racist, inflammatory statements against the indigenous community in the past and a violent, government-sponsored campaign of repression of MAS party members and its supporters is underway. With the White House expressing support for the coup, the US has once again shown their belief that the protection of democracy comes second to the protection of the neoliberal order.