Both lessons are necessary to understand what is now happening in Bolivia.
Yascha Mounk: Evo Morales finally went too far for Bolivia
When he came to office in 2006, Evo Morales followed the playbook for how to destroy democracy step by cynical step. He wrote a new constitution that gave him greater powers. He placed loyalists at the head of independent institutions (including the electoral commission) and influential corporations (including Bolivia’s biggest oil company). And he was unwilling to acknowledge the existence of a legitimate opposition, perpetually vilifying his adversaries as traitors.
In recent years, as Morales’s support among the Bolivian people began to slip, his attacks on democracy became more blatant. Even though a majority of his countrymen—including about half of Bolivia’s indigenous population—voted against a constitutional amendment to revoke term limits, he ran for a fourth term as president. And when he seemed to fall short of the necessary majority to win election in the first round, he engaged in what the Organization of American States decried as a “clear manipulation” of the vote. Among other measures, he tampered with the electronic tally and halted the count.
His attempt to steal the election cost Morales the support of a large number of Bolivians, including many trade unionists, indigenous people, and longtime members of his own political party. As protesters took to the street to demand his resignation, and police forces across the country refused to use force to quash dissent, Morales was forced into exile in Mexico; earlier this month, three weeks after the first round of the presidential election, he officially resigned his post. For a hopeful moment, it seemed likely that free and fair elections would determine a rightful successor, and that Bolivia could serve as an inspiration for other people suffering under dictatorships erected by authoritarian populists, from Turkey to Venezuela.
Since then, the outlook for Bolivia has soured. Morales has, from his exile in Mexico, done what he can to incite civil war. Even though he had called on the OAS to settle allegations of vote rigging, he dismissed the organization’s report as an imperialist plot, portraying it as part of a long-planned “fascist coup.” Instead of asking his supporters to organize for the next elections, he has encouraged them to seek violent confrontations with government security forces. Morales loyalists have blockaded whole cities to stop fuel or food from reaching its residents; in one video released by the interim government, Morales even appears to give tactical advice to the commanders of local insurrectionary troops.
But if Morales has tried to deepen the country’s political divisions, the interim government that succeeded him has proved similarly unwilling to defuse tensions. Because of arcane rules governing the presidential succession, Jeanine Añez, a relatively obscure and deeply conservative senator, rather than Carlos Mesa, Morales’s more moderate and better-known challenger, is leading the transition government.