Morales defeat lifts hopes for Latin American democracy


The blocking of Evo Morales’ desire to run for a fourth consecutive presidential term in Bolivia didn’t only put a stop to his creeping authoritarianism. It is also an encouraging result in Latin America’s “War on Checks and Balances”, FT analyst John Paul Rathbone writes:

There have been several recent attempts to erode term limits in Latin America but 2009 marked the low point. In that year, Venezuelans won a referendum allowing then-president Hugo Chavez to run again (it was his second referenda attempt). Nicaragua’s constitutional court ruled that executive term limits were unconstitutional. Bolivians also approved a new constitution that allowed Mr Morales to run for a third term….

It’s not all gloom though. Indeed, there are even growing signs that Latin America is moving in the opposite direction – towards deeper, stronger institutional process. In Brazil, apolitical judges and prosecutors are holding powerful politicians and businessmen to account in the multi-billion dollar Petrobras corruption probe. There are similar prosecutions in Panama among corrupt judges appointed by Ricardo Martinelli, the former president. Perhaps the most remarkable example is Guatemala [right]. In a country only 20 years ago gripped by civil war and today best known today for extreme drug violence, civil society last year gathered evidence of corruption against a popular sitting president, induced him to resign on the eve of an election, and then saw him jailed – all without a shot fired. If that can happen in Guatemala it can happen anywhere.

Guatemalan civil society groups like Acción Ciudadana, Movimiento Cívico Nacional and Movimiento Nacional por la Integridad* have been instrumental in pushing for greater transparency and accountability.

Bolivia’s civil society groups also played a key role in blocking Morales’s power grab, opening up the prospect for democratic reform.

“We are entering a Brazil-like scenario where an imminent economic crisis causes a crisis of political legitimacy,” says Gonzalo Chávez a Harvard-educated economist. Luis Revilla, the opposition mayor of La Paz, says: “This shakes up the ruling party and opens up a very favorable democratic scene in Bolivia.”

Regionally, Bolivia’s tight election highlights the challenging political winds faced by populist leftist leaders who surged to power in Latin America the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Guardian adds:

In December, Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela suffered a crushing loss in Congressional elections. A month earlier, the Argentinian presidency shifted rightward from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to Mauricio Macri. Morales – who won all three of his presidential campaigns at a canter – had previously appeared resistant to the economic concerns and corruption allegations that have hurt his regional allies.

But his personal popularity has been eroded by a scandal involving a former lover, Gabriela Zapata, with whom he has admitted fathering a child. Deepening the president’s woes, Zapata holds an important position in the Chinese engineering company, CAMC, which has secured more than $500m in contracts with the Bolivian government.

“Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, had handily won three terms by wide margins,” the New York Times adds. “But this time he faced accusations of authoritarianism from the opposition and abandonment by many groups that had once supported him, including many in Bolivia’s indigenous majority.”

*Partners of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.

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