Already the longest-serving democratically elected president in Bolivia, Evo Morales will again run for the presidency in upcoming elections after successfully appealing to the Supreme Electoral Court in November 2017 to remove term limits on presidency within Bolivia. The appeal from the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party came off the back of a failed referendum in February 2016 to amend the constitution to allow Morales to run again for the presidency in elections to be held on 20th October this year. Polls suggest Morales holds the advantage over main opposition, Carlos Mesa, leader of the Revolutionary Left Front party, however, concerns have been raised over Morales’ increasingly authoritarian approach, escalating pressure on the media and judiciary system, alleged corruption, as well as a recent policy shift away from Morales’ original focus on environmental sustainability, and the recognition of indigenous peoples.
In a statement released by Americas Quarterly, Morales boasted of the country’s development throughout his presidency; “Now Bolivia is a reference for the world. We are not only recognized, but are respected. We can’t go back. We must continue.”
Credit cannot be taken away from Morales’ achievements throughout his multiple presidencies. During his 13 years in power, Bolivia’s economy has grown on average five percent per year, inflation has been brought under control, the Bolivian peso, now known as the boliviano, was stabilized, and poverty in the country has more than halved according to the World Bank. Furthermore, Morales has promoted the social and economic progress of Indigenous and mestizo Bolivians and focused on the redistribution of land and wealth to the poor.
However, support originally afforded to Morales in a 2009 referendum to successfully seek a second term of presidency, no longer exists in his fourth attempt, as fears of a loss of democracy rise. Mesa is looking to capitalize on this in the election, stating; “The first problem we must confront is that of democracy being destroyed, a democracy that is being built on the image of individual leadership.”
Accusations of increased authoritarianism by Morales include the weakening of judicial independence. In 2017 congress implemented a commission responsible for the oversight of reform of the justice system. The commission was made up solely of supporters of Morales, and government officials directly appointed by him. Human Rights Watch revealed a worrying trend of the prosecution of political opposition, whilst revealing that 70 percent of all Bolivians in detention have not been convicted of a crime. Furthermore, freedom of speech and gathering is under threat after Morales signed a decree in 2013 that gave the government power to disseminate civil society organizations.
Morales’ popularity amongst the indigenous population has also suffered after the implementation of policies that favour the expansion of the agriculture sector for exports at the expense of the land, and the environment. The government has come under fire recently after denying fires burning at the foot of the Amazon rainforest are linked to laws passed that encourage the settlement of farmers in forest areas, whilst reducing regulations on clearing land by burning it. A former judge and ethnic Aymara, who is currently leading a group of indigenous dissidents recently criticized the president, stating; “His way of thinking and his actions aren’t’ indigenous”.
While Morales still appears the most popular candidate for president, many questions surrounding his presidency remain. In Morales’ goal to transform his country into a global food supplier, is this likely to cost him a large proportion of his supporter base? Will this inspire greater measures of authoritarianism in efforts to hold onto power? Can we be assured that upcoming elections will be free and fair? If Morales is re-elected, how long will he attempt to hold on to power and at what cost?
While Morales’ length of time in the presidency is questionable, at least up until now his presidency was extended upon the consent of his people, however, as time goes on it seems Morales is having to turn more to coercive tactics to remain in power. Again, Morales’ past achievements in Bolivia cannot be overlooked, however, if he is defeated in upcoming elections, he must step down. If he is to be re-elected, this would put him in office until 2025, a time frame where more great work can be achieved for the nation, if the people of Bolivia support it and they are not ruled by an authoritarian who refuses to relinquish his power.