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Bolivia holds referendum to extend presidential term limits

Evaristo Sa, AFP |Bolivian President Evo Morales reviews a guard of honour at Planalto Palace in Brazil on February 2, 2016.

Bolivia goes to the polls Sunday in a referendum that will decide if the country’s first indigenous leader, President Evo Morales, can stay in power for a fourth term.


Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Si” – Spanish for “yes – Valeria Silva campaigns for a presidential term extension days ahead of Sunday’s referendum.

“Let’s not abandon the president on the 21st of February, please,” she tells a passerby as she hands out a flyer. “He needs our help.”

After his decade-long stint in power, Morales is seeking to change the constitution so he can run for re-election in 2019, potentially allowing the one-time coca grower to remain president until 2025.

A 56-year-old Aymara Indian who grew up in a home without running water, Morales is credited with a strong economic record. But corruption allegations have seriously dented his popularity.

For Silva though, Morales remains a man of the people, a leader who managed to slash poverty in one of South America’s poorest countries by spending incomes from natural gas on welfare programmes.

“Evo Morales is an important man in the history of Bolivia. Before he came to power, we were always at the bottom of international rankings. If we elect a right-wing government, we will be back where we started," said Silva.

At 26, Silva is a congressional alternate, or suplente, for the ruling MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party. She's also one of the founders of the “Evo Generation", a youth movement supporting the Bolivian president.

Climbing out of poverty

His popularity is evident at the Tupac Katari Aymara Univeristy, one of a number of indigenous universities Morales has created in the country. Here, around 900 students can study in Spanish and their native tongue, Aymara.

For young people from rural areas, it means they finally have access to higher education. It's precisely these kinds of initiatives that have won Morales widespread popularity in rural Bolivia.

"Before Morales took over, indigenous women did not study,” explained Yovana Ticona, a university student. “We faced discrimination. They told us that women are not allowed to study. Now we finally have the opportunity to go to university. The government strives for us all to be equal. And we can see that we are climbing out of poverty."

Corruption allegations dent president's popularity

Critics, however, accuse the president of being a power-hungry tyrant. They have exposed corruption scandals, and what they call a system of nepotism. Investigations into the government and Morales himself are ongoing.

Until recently, polls showed voters evenly divided in the referendum on whether to let Morales run for a fourth term. But allegations that he used his position to get a top job for his ex-girlfriend appear to have turned the tide against him.

“People who respect democracy believe in being able to change governments," said Wilson Santa Maria, a Congressman for the opposition Unidad Democrata party. "If the 'yes' side wins, that entire principle will be jeopardized because it would mean they would lead this country for 20 years illegally. They would keep serving themselves and promoting corruption."

With the “Yes” and “No” camps running a close race, Sunday’s referendum will be decided by the 15 percent of the electorate who identified as undecided voters.

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