A soft coup in Bolivia

Since we last checked in on Bolivia a month ago, Evo Morales’s presidency has come to an inglorious end. After a report from the Organisation of American States found that there was a case to answer for fiddling the figures in the recent presidential election – in which he had been credited with a very narrow first round victory – he attempted to appease protesters by promising to run the election again.

But that wasn’t enough, and after the leaders of the police and military weighed in, Morales decided to cut his losses and announced his resignation, subsequently leaving the country. His party has said that it will participate in fresh elections, but with new, younger candidates.

Whether or not these proceedings amount to a “coup”, as Morales and his supporters allege, is disputable. Clearly there is something less than complete constitutional regularity; the new acting president, Jeanine Áñez, was some distance down the line of succession and is a strong political opponent of Morales.

There’s no sign, at least so far, of a repudiation of democracy, but the Bolivian left may reasonably wonder whether it will get a fair run in the elections. Many have already taken to the streets, and the interim government has used deadly force against protesters.

It doesn’t look good, and could easily get much worse. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Morales was the one who set the country down this road. If the military and the oligarchs do take over and trash Bolivian democracy, it will only be possible because he first tried to stay in power in defiance of the constitution.

Some on the left have made exactly that case against him. But more common has been a knee-jerk defence of the Morales regime, on the basis that he was a good president who did good things.

I think that’s broadly true. And there’s certainly a good case to be made that the autocratic left in Latin America is less of a threat to liberty and humane values than the autocratic right. The Castros in Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua killed a lot fewer people than their far-right counterparts. Even among apparently democratic regimes, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro looks a good deal scarier than anything Morales has done.

But that’s a bad argument in principle. No government, however progressive, is entitled to insulate itself from the judgement of the public. Democracy is what the left is supposed to be all about, and unless you’re willing to entertain the possibility of the other side winning, what you’ve got isn’t democracy.

And as Bolivia’s experience is demonstrating, it’s bad in practice as well. If Morales had respected the term limits in the constitution that he wrote, he could quite probably have secured the election of a sympathetic successor. Even if the opposition had won the presidency, it would not have involved the complete destruction of Morales’s legacy that now seems likely.

When Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Correa did the right thing and handed over the reins of power, he discovered that his successor, although from the same party, was not entirely to his liking. But that too is one of the risks of democracy.

My friend Guy Rundle argues that Morales insisted on seeking another term due to fear of his party following the Ecuadorian example. That’s possible, but to my mind it’s over-thinking the situation. Politicians don’t usually need an additional reason to want to stay in power, and I don’t expect Morales was any different. Which is exactly why we need strong institutions to guard against the drift to autocracy.

Rather than defending Morales, the left would do better to concentrate on holding the interim government to account, and try to make sure it keeps its promise of early and free elections.

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