Bolivian President Evo Morales resigned on Sunday under pressure from an increasingly violent protest movement that arose after the election in which he claimed a fourth term in office was marred by suspicions of fraud. For a socialist president who was until recently hailed as the great success story of the Latin American left, this unseemly end serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when world leaders remain in office for too long.
The 60-year-old Morales, a former leader of the Bolivian coca-growers union, became the country’s first indigenous president in 2006. During his tenure, he oversaw the adoption of a new constitution and a socialist agenda that significantly reduced extreme poverty in South America’s poorest country over the past 13 years. Morales’s version of socialism has been less radical and more pragmatic than the model pursued by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela: He nationalized some industries but left much of Bolivia’s private sector intact and refrained from seizing large quantities of land from private owners.
Morales’s massive public investments in infrastructure and urban development helped lift many Bolivians out of poverty and grow the middle class. His critics on the right, however, say this state-driven growth is unsustainable, has engendered corruption, and leaves Bolivia vulnerable to shifts in the price of natural gas, its main export. They have also pointed to his increasingly authoritarian style in arguing for a change in leadership in the run-up to the presidential election on October 20.
That day was expected to be much less of a cakewalk for the president than the prior two elections, in which he won more than 60 percent of the vote. In order to win outright in the first round, Bolivia’s election law requires a candidate to win either 50 percent, or at least 40 percent with a ten-point lead over their nearest rival. Polls prior to last month’s vote indicated that Morales was unlikely to win by that margin and that his main opponent, former president Carlos Mesa, could beat Morales in a second round.
Early returns from the night of the election showed Morales in the lead but falling short of the ten-percent margin he would need to avoid a runoff. Officials stopped announcing results for 24 hours, then suddenly released an updated count in which 95 percent of the votes were counted and Morales was close to a first-round victory; he claimed victory, and the final count put him just over ten points ahead of Mesa.
Mesa and other opposition leaders cried fraud and street protests soon broke out in the capital La Paz and other Bolivian cities. The protests quickly turned violent, with demonstrators burning several local election centers and the homes of several senior members of Morales’s Movement for Socialism party. Over the past few weeks, three people were killed and over 100 injured in clashes between Morales’s supporters and opposition protesters. Morales has characterized the protests as a coup attempt led by Mesa, even as he announced his resignation on Sunday. Several other South American leftist leaders echoed this assertion, including Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, Argentine president-elect Alberto Fernández, and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The forces that compelled Morales to resign were twofold: First, the Organization of American States released the findings of its audit of the vote count, which found evidence of massive irregularities and violations of standard election integrity procedures. The OAS report, released Sunday, concluded that the election “must be annulled and the electoral process must begin again” under “a newly composed electoral body.” Morales initially said he would accept the OAS’s recommendations, replace the election commission, and hold a new vote, but this proved too little, too late. Williams Kaliman, commander of Bolivia’s armed forces, and national police chief Vladimir Calderón both called for his resignation Sunday afternoon. With the instruments of state power no longer behind him, the writing was on the wall for the president.
At least for the moment, it is unclear who will administer the Bolivian state while new elections are organized, as both Morales’s vice-president and the president of the Senate, who would normally serve as the line of succession to an absent president, both resigned on Sunday as well. A constitutional lawyer told Reuters that lawmakers would meet to appoint an interim commission or legislator to serve in an interim capacity.
The disgraceful and chaotic manner in which the once-beloved Morales is leaving office is an object lesson in why presidential term limits are important. Running a country for more than a decade has a tendency to make people more susceptible to authoritarian impulses, whether or not they started their careers as dictators. In recent decades, the world has witnessed both left-wing and right-wing leaders, elected in semi-democratic systems, grow increasingly paranoid and repressive after getting a little too comfortable in the presidential palace. Pretty soon, the democratic institutions through which they came to power are eroded and disfigured to prevent their rivals from unseating them.
It’s also a huge red flag when a head of government seeks to change the law to allow themselves to stay in office longer than they were supposed to. Absent some constitutional shenanigans, Morales should not have been allowed to run in this election at all. Originally elected in 2006 for a five-year term, Morales called an early election in 2009 after the adoption of Bolivia’s new constitution, which imposed a two-term limit for presidents. He then argued that this counted as his first term under the new constitution, so he should be allowed to run again in 2014, which the constitutional court allowed him to do.
After winning reelection again, he held a referendum in 2016 to abolish term limits, which voters narrowly rejected, but Morales convinced the constitutional court, packed with his loyalists, to rule that running for office was a human right and that term limits violated that right. His effort to cling to power culminated in the sloppy ballot-stuffing uncovered in the OAS audit, which is the sort of thing you really can only get away with when you already have an iron grip on your country. Morales had finally overplayed his hand.
If this sounds absurd, just imagine a senescent, 85-year-old Donald Trump running for re-re-reelection in 2032, and be glad that the 22nd Amendment to our own Constitution makes that scenario impossible — at least for now.