Bolivia’s interim President Jeanine Áñez signed legislation earlier this week to enforce a two-term limit on the presidency and create a board to set a date for new elections. The move comes after former President Evo Morales sought a fourth term in October and emerged with a victory in an election many opposition groups characterized as rigged.
His controversial election prompted intense political unrest, and violent protests led Morales to resign on November 10 and flee to obtain political asylum in Mexico. More than 30 people were killed in the protests. In the midst of the unrest, the Organization of American States (OAS) launched an audit of election records. Its preliminary audit stated the final election count was marred by “serious security flaws” and a “clear manipulation” of the electronic computer system, as well as improper use of state resources. Morales supported the OAS audit before going to Mexico, a move made after a decisive loss in the support for the Bolivian military. The legislation signed by President Áñez requires the Bolivian Congress to agree on a seven-member electoral court after the former court was ousted for potentially manipulating the results in the election granting Morales victory. Once the court agrees on an election date, the election must be held within 120 days.
Morales sought to subdue protests by setting up blockades at key access points to cities such as Le Paz. Essential transportation routes have been cut off between cities and agricultural land, resulting in major fuel and food shortages. As the unrest continued, President Áñez signed a presidential decree to grant prosecutorial immunity to Bolivian security forces who engage in violence. Protest groups are demanding Áñez repeal this decree as part of their longer list of demands. Many military officers joined the protests. The commander of Bolivian armed forces, William Kaliman, announced on November 21 that the military would not confront protestors, though at least 8 deaths were reported after violence between Bolivian security officers and protestors. Some blockades have been lifted since the announcement of reforms and groups’ demands to meet with President Áñez have gone underway.
Protestors have expressed their frustration over the state of Bolivia’s electoral integrity. Diego Tamayo, a university student protestor, told The New York Times, “Bolivians are upset over fraud and we will not be silent in the face of injustice […] Never in my life have I seen a mobilization of this scale.” The military, which by and large sided with the Bolivian people, said in a letter to Mr. Morales and other military leaders, “The armed forces of the state will never take up arms against the people […] Our weapons will only be raised to defend our people, our Constitution, and our laws.” Kaliman told reporters, “We will never face the people who we serve, and we will always ensure peace between our brothers and the development of our country.”
Recently, Interim President Áñez declared her party’s support for “clean, just and transparent elections.” In a speech at the government palace, President Áñez said, “We are going to recover democracy with democracy.” While Áñez’s deal would bar Morales from running for president in the next election due to term limit requirements, Morales told the Associated Process, “Let the whole world know that I won’t change ideology because of [t]his coup.” It is unclear what Morales plans to do in the coming months, or whether he will return to Bolivia.
Morales was Bolivia’s first indigenous president and ruled the country for nearly 14 years. Under his presidency, Bolivia has enjoyed significant economic growth and social gains, though there still remain deep divides between indigenous peoples of Bolivia and Bolivia’s urban middle and upper classes. If the transfer of power from President Áñez to a new president is peaceful, marked by free and fair elections, Bolivia may retain electoral integrity and an upward trajectory in its social and economic affairs. It may be necessary to re-audit elections to ensure accuracy and fairness, and the results of this audit should be publicly available. Questions of prosecutorial immunity also would do best to be negotiated immediately between protestors and President Áñez’s interim administration.