What should the opposition do in authoritarian regimes? Here are lessons from Bolivia.
By Laura Gamboa
Last year Bolivians went to the polls to elect a new president. Tainted with irregularities, the process unleashed a cycle of protests that forced the resignation of the executive, Evo Morales, and led to the rise of a right-wing interim government in Bolivia. For all the debate on whether the government committed fraud or whether what happened was a coup or not, little has been said about the opposition and the series of strategic choices that, ultimately, unhinged Morales from power. These are not only essential to understand Bolivia’s events, but provide important lessons for countries in similar situations across the region.
1. Even if unfair, elections provide important opportunities
The 2019 elections in Bolivia were suspect. There was no reason to expect they would be fair.
Morales had been in power since 2006. Over time, he had enhanced his hold over courts, congress and oversight agencies, and used it to harass the opposition, decrease media freedom, use state resources to campaign, and run for office a third (2015-2020) and a fourth term (2020-2025). By 2017, Bolivia had not only lost its horizontal accountability (meaning checks and balances), but it had severely hindered its electoral accountability as well. Like Venezuela (between 2006 and 2015) or Hungary (since 2018), the Andean country had elections, and the opposition could compete in them, but an uneven access to resources and the media, as well as manipulation of electoral rules had made the incumbent almost invincible.
Morales had been able to stay in power for 13 years, yes, because he decreased poverty, diminished inequality, and stabilized the country, but also because he controlled state institutions that allowed him to bend electoral rules and ignore the popular will.
Despite these drawbacks, the opposition chose to participate. Scholars have long shown that, even if unfair, elections provide important opportunities in authoritarian settings. Although popular, Morales was facing an uphill battle. He had enough support to win the first round, but it was unclear if he would have enough votes to avoid or win a runoff. By participating, the opposition forced him to choose between letting the elections play out and risk losing against a single opposition candidate in a second round, or resorting to more blatant forms of electoral manipulation and hinder his democratic façade. He chose the latter.
2. Sometimes, elections are not enough
Crucially, the opposition did not take the election irregularities lying down. Following what Bunce and Wolchik call the “electoral model,” it rallied around a pro-democratic flag, gaining domestic and international support. As Morales claimed victory hiding behind his handpicked electoral council, the opposition went to the streets demanding a runoff.
This is not the first time the opposition had tried to use radical extra-institutional strategies against Bolivia’s ex-president. In 2008, regional opposition groups used violent protests in an attempt to oust Morales. However, these radical extra-institutional strategies backfired, just as happened in Venezuela (in 2002, 2003, and 2005). In 2008, Morales had won democratically. Using street violence to oust him was seen as unwarranted domestically and abroad. The opposition strategies at the time allowed the government to paint the opposition as radical and undemocratic, and use that as an excuse to legitimize more aggressive anti-democratic reforms.
That was not the case in 2019. Morales’s disregard for democratic institutions, his dubious candidacy, and the election irregularities had hurt the government’s democratic credentials, giving legitimacy to the opposition’s claim. Groups that had supported the president in the past turned against him, and institutions like the European Unionand the Organization of American States—critical of the opposition in 2008—endorsed the calls for a second round.
The strategy worked. Facing domestic and international pressure, Morales was forced to make concessions. On October 22, he invited the OAS to conduct a binding audit and later he called for new elections overseen by a new electoral board.
Unfortunately, Morales’ concessions were too little too late. Carlos Mesa (the runner-up) and other moderate sectors of the opposition had gotten what they wanted, but they were unable to control the protests. Radical groups led by Luis Fernando Camacho and the Comité Cívico de Santa Cruz had broken with Mesaand were calling Morales to resign. When the police and the military endorsed them, the Bolivian president had no other choice but to step down.
3. The correlation of forces did not predict this outcome
Morales’s ouster, or even his willingness to accept new elections caught many by surprise. The Bolivian opposition was not particularly strong. It did not control outstanding economic or institutional resources, it did not have good access to media outlets, and it was not particularly united. Since 2010, the opposition has been fractionalized and weak. It had inchoate parties as well as powerful radical and moderate sectors favoring different strategies.
Morales was not a particularly weak leader either. Although weakened and less popular, he had a healthy 42% average approval rating in 2018 and a very well-organized base of support. Although he never controlled the security apparatus to the extent that Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua do, neither did the opposition. The police or the armed forces would likely never have intervened one way or another without the protests.
Structural and institutional conditions, as well as Morales’s own mistakes contributed to Morales’s downfall, but did not predict it. The opposition’s strategic choices played an equally important role. Participating in flawed elections and going to the streets to protest the results were key in shaping a disadvantageous situation that would have certainly deepened authoritarianism in Bolivia, into an opportunity to transition back to democracy.
4. Democracy has not triumphed just yet…
The outcome of that opportunity is yet to be determined. Regardless of whether it was a coup or not, removing Morales from power after he had accepted new elections was unnecessarily radical and most of the steps taken by the opposition since have not been conciliatory or democratic.
On November 12, in a decision somewhat reminiscent of Pedro Carmona´s in the Venezuelan 2002 coup, Jeanine Áñez—a social conservative senator—swore herself as Bolivia’s interim president. Unlike Carmona, she was the next in line to the presidency, but she was never elected by Congress. Her appointment was approved by the constitutional court, which argued—like Venezuela’s supreme court in 2002—that Morales´s resignation and exile had left a vacuum of power.
Despite the interim nature of her mandate, in the past three months Áñez has repressed protests, used the state’s communication and judiciary infrastructure to harass MAS members, overturned Morales’s foreign policy, and symbolically antagonized Bolivia´s indigenous population. Even though—under international pressure—her government negotiated with MAS and called for new elections, last month Añez joined the race. Her run for president while being in office not only casts doubts on the fairness of the elections but muddles the path towards democratization.
It is unclear what will happen next. The elections are scheduled for May 3 and facing a very fragmented opposition. As of now, there are at least four candidates, plus Añez and Luis Arce, the candidate from Evo Morales’ MAS party. Arce seems well positioned to win.
However, what happens if Arce attains office is not straightforward. Although Arce was handpicked by Morales—overriding the party’s decision to nominate David Choquehuanca—that does not guarantee he will do the ex-president’s biding. Successors, even handpicked ones, open up the set of opportunities. If willing and with the right coalition behind him, Arce could be in a good position to reduce the power of the executive, rebuild the independence of courts and oversight agencies, and increase the freedom and fairness of elections in Bolivia.
Laura Gamboa is an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University. Her research focuses on institutions, regime and regime change in Latin America.