After Morales: Bolivia faces uncertain future as violence rages

Evo Morales supporters wave the Bolivian flag and a wiphala, emblem of indigenous communities of the Andes, in Cochabamba on November 19, 2019.
Evo Morales supporters wave the Bolivian flag and a wiphala, emblem of indigenous communities of the Andes, in Cochabamba on November 19, 2019. Marco Bello, REUTERS

Bolivia's interim leadership has asked Congress to approve the organisation of new elections in the bitterly divided country as deadly violence continues to rage following the resignation of leftist President Evo Morales.


Bowing to pressure from the military – which joined demonstrators’ calls for his resignation after weeks of protests – Morales stepped down on November 10 and later sought asylum in Mexico following a disputed presidential election he was accused of attempting to rig.

Bowing out unceremoniously after 14 years in power, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader was replaced by the deputy head of the Senate, Jeanine Anez, a member of the conservative opposition who became next in line for the presidency after Morales, his vice-president and the leaders of both chambers of Congress all quit.

But since she entered the presidential palace on November 12, bible in hand, the new interim president has faced the wrath of Morales supporters, who want their champion reinstated

Outnumbered in Congress and facing hostile protests, the right-wing provisional government appointed by Anez is heavily dependent on the police and the military to keep it in power.

Controversially, it has issued a decree allowing the armed forces to take part in restoring order and exempting them from criminal liability. This has contributed to an escalation of violence in a country where tensions had been building since the disputed October 20 presidential vote.

According to the Public Defender’s Office, a state-appointed rights watchdog, the unrest has killed at least 27 people and injured more than 700.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) has accused the government of encouraging violence and military repression, and demanded the right to investigate the bloodshed.

Adding its voice to the chorus of criticism, the NGO Human Rights Watch has urged Bolivia’s interim president to repeal the decree granting the military broad discretion in the use of force.

Back to the polls?

In order to end the stand-off, Anez has promised to organise new elections quickly and appoint an independent electoral board to replace the one that was tarnished by the October 20 poll.

On Wednesday, her cabinet presented a bill that would annul the results of last month’s election and pave the way for a new vote.

To secure the bill’s passage, the government needs the support of Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, which controls both chambers of Congress and has already submitted its own proposals for a new election.

Should the two sides fail to reach an understanding, Anez would still have the option of calling an election by presidential decree.

That is what prominent conservatives have been calling for, including Carlos Mesa, a former president and Morales’s main challenger in last month’s election, and Luis Fernando Camacho, a vociferous right-winger who emerged as the leader of the anti-Morales protest camp following the botched poll.

Morales party at a crossroads

Analysts say only the prospect of new elections could help pacify the country and bridge the divide between the current ultra-conservative government, which has rushed to fill the political void left by Morales’s abrupt departure, and supporters of the former president, who claim their champion was toppled in a coup.

According to Claudia Benavente, who heads the Bolivian daily La Razon, divisions within Morales’s party have further muddied the waters.

“MAS is in crisis, its strategy is unclear,” she argued. “There’s no doubt negotiations are taking place within the movement.”

In recent days, MAS has been playing several cards at once, agreeing to dialogue in Congress while backing the protests in the streets. Party activists have blockaded major cities and fought running battles with security forces, most notably in the region of Cochabamba and the high-altitude city of El Alto, a working-class bastion of Morales.

“MAS is fighting for its survival,” sociologist Franck Poupeau told French daily Le Monde, though cautioning that the party “can hardly be eliminated as such”. He added: “One mustn’t forget that between 40% and 45% of Bolivians voted for Morales and there can be no political scenario that excludes this constituency.”

The Anez administration at one point contemplated banning MAS, before backtracking.

“The provisional government is living on a knife-edge: a situation of chaos, caused by excessive repression, would only precipitate the return of Evo Morales,” Benavente warned, pointing out that all those killed in the violence “came from poor, indigenous segments of society” loyal to the former president.

Bolivian right seeks unity – and legitimacy

Many in the anti-Morales camp say speedy and transparent elections are necessary to ensure that the former president, who angered many by clinging to power in defiance of term limits, can no longer pose as a “coup victim”.

The former coca farmer has been tweeting furiously from his Mexican exile, blasting the brutal repression that is targeting his supporters. On Wednesday, he accused the security forces of engaging in “genocide” against indigenous Bolivians and called on the international community to intervene.

Also at stake in looming elections is the leadership of the conservative camp, whose figurehead Mesa has been sidelined in the space of just a few weeks.

“Carlos Mesa got a lot of votes on October 20, but he is no longer the head of the opposition,” said Benavente. “He now has a formidable rival in Fernando Camacho and will find it very difficult to unite the opposition behind him.”

Mesa, who plays no part in the Anez administration, personifies an old order that has been largely eclipsed by the government, added Benavente. Instead, she noted that the cabinet featured “a number of members from the province of Santa Cruz who are hostile to the Collas [mainly indigenous highlanders] and advocate a very hard line” on the protests.

According to the Bolivian feminist campaigner Maria Galindo, the current government – which she labels “fascist” – urgently needs an election “to apply a veneer of democratic legitimacy on a regime that rests on the occupation of cities by the police and army”.

And in order to achieve this, “the participation of MAS is essential”, she added.

But she was equally scathing in her assessment of the strategy pursued by Morales and his deputy, Alvaro Garcia Linera, whom she blamed for “causing a power vacuum and spreading panic” in a desperate bid to save “a crony regime that collapsed under the weight of its own decadence”.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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