It appears that one year after President Evo Morales was forced from power and fled the country, his socialist party is back in power in Bolivia. Official results have not yet been released, but exit polls suggest that Luis Arce, Morales’ former economy minister and his handpicked successor, has won over 50 percent of the vote in yesterday’s election—enough to avoid a runoff next month. Interim president—and Morales foe—Jeanine Áñez has already tweeted congratulations to Arce. The runner-up, centrist former President Carlos Mesa, has conceded.
If confirmed, the result would bring an end to a period of political chaos and uncertainty that began with the last election on Oct. 20, 2019. Initial results in that vote showed that Morales, a former coca farmer and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, narrowly won a fourth term after 10 years in power. However, amid allegations of vote rigging and protests, the military called for Morales to step down. He resigned and flew to Mexico, but denounced his ouster as a coup. Today, he’s living in exile in Argentina.
Morales had been one of the last standing leaders of the “pink tide,” the wave of left-wing governments elected throughout Latin America in the early 2000s, following Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, so his ouster became something of an ideological Rorschach test. The sight of a Latin American socialist leader being forced from power by the military—with the approval of the U.S. government—brought back bad Cold War memories for left-wing politicians and governments around the world, who condemned the ouster as a coup. Conservatives, meanwhile, said it was a triumph of the rule of law that had halted the country’s descent into Venezuela-style autocracy and chaos.
Initially, there appeared to some merit to the charge of vote rigging in 2019: The counting of results was inexplicably halted for 24 hours before resuming to show Morales had just enough votes for an outright victory. A report from the Organization of American States found evidence of “clear manipulation.” However, independent researchers, working in cooperation with the New York Times, have since cast doubt on OAS’ methodology, finding “no statistical evidence of fraud.”
In any case, whatever democratic legitimacy it may have claimed at the start, Bolivia’s interim government led by Áñez, formerly the vice president of the Senate, quickly squandered it. Though she pledged to be merely a caretaker until a new election could be held, the staunch conservative instead moved quickly to roll back many of the Morales government’s policies, pursue legal charges against his supporters, and increase the role of Catholicism in the country’s politics. Dozens of Morales supporters, many of them indigenous Bolivians, were killed by the police and military during protests.
During the past year, Bolivia has also suffered one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with nearly 140,000 cases, nearly 8,500 deaths, and the fifth-worst death rate per capita in the world. The election, originally scheduled for last May, was delayed twice because of the virus. Due in large part to criticism of her handling of the pandemic, Áñez ended her own candidacy for the presidency in September.
As Morales’ economy minister, Arce is associated with the most lauded part of his old boss’s legacy. The Morales years saw robust economic growth, and his generous social programs cut the number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty by half. The World Bank upgraded Bolivia from a “lower income” to “lower middle income” country in 2010. Still, he’ll have his work cut out for him now: The coronavirus has devastated the country’s economy, and he can no longer count on the high commodities prices that fueled the Morales-era boom.
From a democracy perspective, the election is mostly a win and continues the recent global trend of coups: In addition to being much less common than they were during the Cold War, these days they’re far more likely to lead to a quick return to democratic elections.
However, while evidence of fraud in the 2019 election now seems to have been, at the very least, exaggerated, Morales’ critics also had reason to raise alarm about his increasingly autocratic behavior. Most egregious was that the president was running in 2019 at all: In a 2016 referendum, voters rejected constitutional changes to allow him to run for a fourth term, but he did it anyway, relying on a dubious ruling from the Supreme Court justices he had appointed that barring him from running again violated his human rights. Morales was also accused of betraying his core supporters in 2011 with a controversial plan to build a highway through a protected rainforest that’s home to thousands of indigenous Bolivians. Protests were blocked and dispersed by police.
It probably won’t be clear until at least the next election—currently scheduled for 2025—whether the country’s democracy is actually back on track. But for now, Bolivian voters have made it clear they want Morales’ movement back, even without Morales himself.