Evo Morales Finally Went Too Far for Bolivia

The socialist president claimed authoritarian powers in the name of the popular will. But average citizens were fed up with arbitrary rule.

Evo Morales gets ready to wave a Bolivian flag to start the race during day eight of the Dakar Rally on the Salar de Uyuni.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty

Evo Morales has been attacking Bolivia’s democracy for many years. Since coming to office in 2006, the socialist president has concentrated ever more authority in his own hands, denounced the opposition in aggressive terms, and placed loyalists in key institutions, from the country’s public broadcaster to its highest court.

Like many populists on both the left and the right, Morales claimed to wield power in the name of the people. But after weeks of mass protests in La Paz and other Bolivian cities, and the rapid crumbling of his support both within law enforcement and his own political party, it was his loss of legitimacy among the majority of his own countrymen that forced Morales to resign yesterday.

What he and some of his most credulous Western supporters described as a coup was in fact something very different: proof that Bolivians—like the citizens of many other countries around the world—resent arbitrary rule. The longer they have suffered from oppression, the more they have come to value the democratic institutions that are now threatened by populists around the globe.

As Morales started to come up against the two-term limit for presidents stipulated by the constitution he himself had championed in 2009, his enmity toward any semblance of the rule of law became more and more evident. In 2016, he held a binding referendum that would allow him to stay in office indefinitely. When a majority of Bolivians voted down the proposal, Morales resorted to his tight control of previously independent institutions to get his way. In 2017, the country’s supreme court ruled that limits on the length of his tenure in office would violate Morales’s human rights.

Thanks to this bizarre ruling, Morales was able to run for yet another term in office this year. To secure his reelection in the first round of the elections, on October 20, he needed to either win a majority of the vote, or lead his closest challenger by at least 10 percent. As the night wore on, and the state’s official electoral commission updated results in real time, it became more and more clear that he would fall far short of that goal.

That’s when the vote tally suddenly froze. For 24 hours, the website of Bolivia’s electoral commission offered no more updates. Then the official result was finally announced: Morales had supposedly won 47.1 percent to Carlos Mesa’s 35.5 percent, winning the election outright.

The strong circumstantial evidence of vote tampering succeeded in inspiring what years of more subtle attacks on democratic institutions had failed to do: Millions of Bolivians went out into the streets to demand a fair election. They were threatened and beaten by pro-government gangs. Yet the public mood steadily swung against Morales. Parts of Bolivia’s police and military made clear that they would no longer be willing to do his violent bidding.

When an independent observer mission from the Organization of American States published its audit of the election yesterday, the game was finally up. After the OAS announced that there had been “clear manipulations” of the vote in a scathing report, Morales agreed to new elections. A few hours later, as scores of his own allies started to abandon the sinking ship, he resigned from office. Though the future of Bolivian democracy still remains radically uncertain, this is a momentous turning point: one of the first times in recent memory that an authoritarian populist has been forced to vacate his office, because his own compatriots would not stand for his abuses.

Morales’s departure from office marks both a sea change in Latin American politics and a stinging rebuke to the naïveté of parts of the Western left. Even though there had always been strong evidence of their anti-democratic leanings, new socialist leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia were widely celebrated throughout the first decade of the 21st century as the future face of Latin America.

Now virtually nothing remains of their erstwhile appeal. Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have made Venezuela deeply authoritarian and shockingly poor. Meanwhile, the Bolivian people have come out in great numbers to stop Morales from violently crushing their protests. As one of the most famous slogans of the Latin American left holds, El pueblo unido jamás será vencido: The people united will never be defeated.

From east to west, and south to north, the dream of Latin America’s so-called pink wave has turned into a nightmare. And the many scholars, writers, and politicians who have for years sung the praises of aspiring dictators like Maduro and Morales should not be easily forgiven for sacrificing the rights of distant people on the altar of their rigid ideology.

Morales’s resignation comes during a season of protest. From Beirut to Paris, and from Santiago to Hong Kong, millions of people have been taking to the streets to hold their governments accountable. It would be tempting to believe that all of these mass movements are caused by the same factors, and aim for the same goals.

There certainly are some important commonalities. In every case, protesters have come to believe that the powerful are insufficiently responsive to their demands and are ignorant of their desires. And in every case, they have made use of the ample opportunity for mass mobilization created by social networks from Facebook to WhatsApp. And yet, the hidden differences between these protest movements are ultimately more important than their obvious similarities.

One set of protesters, such as the striking students in Chile and the gilets jaunes in France, is expressing discontent with democratic governments. This group demonstrates that, in at least one important respect, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama was too optimistic in his famous thesis about the end of history. Liberal democracy, he asserted in 1989, would be the final form by which advanced human societies governed themselves, largely because they were uniquely able to manage their “internal contradictions.” Recent years show that he was overly sanguine about democracy’s stability. As the huge crowds in Paris and Santiago demonstrate, many democracies are struggling mightily to stop their internal contradictions from blowing up the system.

In many countries, a mixture of economic stagnation, growing inequality, and rapid cultural change has made a large number of citizens deeply skeptical about their democratic institutions. Whether or not the protests in Paris and Santiago will ultimately find expression in party politics, the forces that fuel them are similar to those that have swept a wave of populist politicians into office from Brazil to Mexico, and from Italy to the United States.

Another set of protesters, by contrast, stands at a much later stage in the struggle between democracy and autocracy. The citizens who have come out in great numbers in Caracas and La Paz, and even those who are starting to push back against their autocratic governments in Budapest and Istanbul, are not at all disenchanted with the shortcomings of democratic institutions. Quite the opposite: As they start to see their democratic rights and freedoms threatened in their daily lives, they are more and more determined to win them back.

This shows that Fukuyama’s much-maligned thesis may contain rather more wisdom than many now believe. While liberal democracy has proved much more fragile than most social scientists assumed a few short years ago, an alternative political system that would better resolve its own internal contradictions is not in sight. While populists on both the left and the right have been shockingly skillful at undermining democratic systems with the false promise of returning power to the people, their authoritarian instincts ultimately turn huge swaths of the population against them. The core values of liberal democracy—individual freedom and collective self-determination—may be more universal than recent setbacks seem to suggest.

I am writing these lines in Prague, where I am speaking at an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. The mood among the distinguished participants—many of whom played leading roles in toppling the Communist regime here—has been strikingly somber: While Central Europe seemed to be confidently marching toward a democratic future until just a few years ago, populists are now threatening the survival of democratic institutions in many countries across the Continent.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has succeeded in erecting a de facto dictatorship. In Poland, a like-minded government has just won a second term in office even though (or perhaps because) it promised to emulate his model. And here in Prague, a populist president and a billionaire prime minister are, each in his own way, attacking the legitimacy of the country’s hard-won democracy.

But, coming at the peak of global festivities commemorating the revolutions across Central Europe, the recent events in La Paz should make us dare to hope for a better future once again. The people of Bolivia eventually became unwilling to tolerate the loss of their liberties at the hand of a government that had always promised to expand them. There is good reason to imagine that the people of Brazil and Hungary and the Czech Republic will, likewise, come to rebel against the false promises of the populists who now rule over them.

In that sense, the inspiring victory of the Bolivian people has great meaning far beyond Latin America. Morales’s sudden loss of support should not only scare embattled leftist dictators, such as Maduro in Venezuela; it should also terrify far-right populists, such as Hungary’s Orbán or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who still appear to have a firm hold on power.