What Bolivia’s “No” vote means for its political future

Whatever you may think of Evo Morales and his time in power, Bolivian voters’ narrow rejection of a constitutional amendment to allow him to run again is a good thing for the country’s politics and even Morales' legacy.


The results are still not official, but as of now, the most recent up-to-date results posted by the Bolivian electoral court make it clear that voters have rejected President Evo Morales’ constitutional amendment to permit him to run for re-election. Assuming those results hold, Morales will not be eligible to run for office again in December of 2019 and will complete his current (and final?) term in office in January 2020.

Not surprisingly, Morales and his close supporters (especially vice president Alvaro García Linera) are digging in. They suggest only fraud from the right wing could have altered the results they anticipated. Certainly, they have the right to be upset. After all, no one likes to lose an election. But some of the vitriol is both unwarranted and unwise. Obviously, Morales’s long-time opponents mobilized to push a “No” vote. But didn’t the government (with all the resources of an incumbent government) mobilize its own resources in favor of the “Sí” option? It’s also curious to suggest that Bolivian voters are so easily manipulated that a “social media dirty war”—as the government is charging—was able to swing them into voting against their “true” interests. At the same, government supporters’ accusations of fraud against the electoral court are odd, considering that almost the entire staff of the court was appointed during the decade in which Morales has been in power and the court has endorsed every Morales victory until now. Finally, Morales supporters’ denunciation of “public pressure” from the opposition’s (peaceful) popular mobilization (such as the “vigilias” held near the electoral court offices) is equally disingenuous, since that’s long been a tactic used by MAS—a political party that defines itself as a social movement.

But the interesting thing here, and one that may take a while to sink in, is that the victory for “No” may be the best thing to have happened to MAS (and perhaps even to Morales) in recent years.

Morales still has four more years in office. That means he has plenty of time to start doing what he should have done ages ago: Namely, institutionalize the MAS as true political party. And with four years to do it, he can help shepherd that process and avoid the chaos of a last-minute scramble to find a successor (as happened in Venezuela) with all the uncertainty that would undoubtedly create.

For years, MAS has been so dominated by Morales that it has not really given much attention to developing a second tier of potential leaders. MAS legislators rarely return to the legislature, which means there’s no strong cadre of MAS deputies and senators with lengthy experience. MAS party governors tend to be ephemeral and easily removed. With four years between now and the 2019 general elections, MAS can put its affairs in order, and start looking for a successor candidate—all while Morales is still in power to oversee and manage that process.

And that means that Morales can now focus on his legacy, rather than on his re-election. For all its flaws (and what government doesn’t have them?), the decade under Morales has been generally positive for Bolivia in many ways. In place of an inchoate party system based on general consensus along socioeconomic policy and little to divide parties, there’s now a genuine socioeconomic and ideological cleavage that defines Bolivian politics. And the multicultural/plurinational inclusion embodied in the new constitution is certainly something to celebrate. All those things are positive.

But the longer Morales (or any person) stays in power, the more scandals and problems will accumulate, slowly eroding the person’s power and legitimacy. Morales will (hopefully) avoid that now. He will be remembered as the man who made Bolivia more inclusive, rather than oversaw its economic meltdown. Imagine how Chávez would be remembered if he had only been president until 2006, a year before the fall of oil prices. Or imagine how Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada would be remembered, if he had only been president from 1993-1997, and hadn’t returned for his disastrous and aborted 2002-2003 term. He would’ve been remembered as the man who brought municipal decentralization and firmly institutionalized the MNR as a post-democracy party.

If MAS really does represent a political project—rather than just a banner to fly over Evo Morales’s head—and if that project is truly popular, shouldn’t MAS expect that whoever succeeds Morales would win in 2019? The next three years give the party and its leaders a chance to make that a reality, and by doing so help institutionalize a party and a new party system.


Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi. He is also co-director of a summer methods field school in Bolivia in partnership between the University of Mississippi and the Universidad Católica de Bolivia.

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