Again we have the paradox of authoritarian democracy: the only way a regime accused of authoritarianism can prove that its critics are wrong and it really is democratic, is by losing an election. Or in this case, a referendum.
A couple of months ago it was Venezuela, where a big opposition victory in congressional elections provided, as I said, “an embarrassment factor on both sides.” This week it’s Bolivia, where a referendum on Monday morning (Australian time) to allow president Evo Morales to stand for another term of office appears to have been defeated.
Morales was elected in 2006, and in 2009 a new constitution limited the presidency to two five-year terms. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that his first term did not count for this purpose, so he was able to run for re-election in 2014, which he won with 61.4% of the vote. His term will expire in January 2020.
Fourteen years in office should be enough for anyone, but Morales pushed for a constitutional amendment that would extend the limit to three terms. He has not yet conceded defeat, but with 90.5% of polling places in, the “no” vote has what looks like an unassailable lead of 52.3% to 47.7%. The figures also match the predictions made by two exit polls.
Morales professes his admiration for Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, but his administration has been rather more moderate than theirs. Rather than seriously attempting to build a socialist state, he has accepted the mixed economy and put more effort into indigenous rights and resistance to the American-led War on Drugs, which had devastated much of rural Bolivia.
Morales has won praise for improving the lot of Bolivia’s poor and marginalised, particularly the indigenous people who form the large majority of the country’s population but have traditionally been seen as second-class citizens. There seems, however, a sense that his image has tarnished in recent years – notably with a corruption scandal involving his former girlfriend being employed by a Chinese construction company.
As so often happens, power seems to have gone to Morales’s head: he has become convinced that he is indispensable to his country’s progress. Or as he puts it, “this can’t stop now; the neoliberals cannot return.” Removal or disregard of term limits has become sadly common among the precarious democracies and semi-democracies of Latin America and Africa.
Counting in the referendum has been slow, and with support for Morales strongest in the rural areas, which tend to report later, it’s possible the final result could be tight. (It’s now late Tuesday evening in Bolivia, so we’ll probably have to wait until tomorrow to be sure.) But it looks as if, come 2019, Bolivia will be electing a new president, and Morales may get his wish for a new career as a sports official.
*UPDATE 11pm Wednesday, Bolivian time*
The Bolivian electoral commission has stopped updating its preliminary results and instead has final results (not literally final, but 99.8% counted) on a different page, showing the “no” vote victorious with 51.3%, on a very healthy turnout of 84.4%.
The BBC reports that Morales has conceded defeat, saying “We respect the results, it is part of democracy.” He was right to wait, since the margin came down from above 54% on Monday. Close, but not close enough.