At the end of 2019, each of Bolivia’s nine regional departments experienced protests for nearly two months following the Oct. 20 national election, where former leftist President Evo Morales declared himself president for the fourth consecutive term. Under claims of fraud, he resigned from the presidency in November and ultimately fled the country with many of his party’s high-ranking officials, leaving the country with conservative Jeanine Añez as their interim president. However, after COVID-19 led to delayed elections and renewed protests, the state of the country’s power remains at a standstill.
Morales’ presidency was fraught with controversy. He had been president for thirteen years, having been elected in 2005 and reelected in both 2009 and 2014. Before Morales, this number of reelections was unheard of. Controversy rose after Morales’ constituent assembly and Bolivia’s Constitutional Court approved a 2009 referendum and early election, rising out of a changed constitution that allowed the president to pursue one consecutive reelection. Although the economy rose under Morales’ rule—such as the country’s poverty population percentage dropping by more than half from 36% to 17%—his increasingly leftist politics caused tension among the general population. After claims of fraud arose due to the results of the Oct. 2019 election, citizens set up roadblocks among violent clashes to challenge his continuation as president.
Bolivians took the streets claiming that Morales had engaged in electoral fraud. While observing the counts of the vote, the nation was surprised when results froze; Morales was falling behind other candidates at this time, but when final numbers were released, Morales had seemingly managed to best all his competitors. Although he was still in the margin of a runoff with the second-highest candidate, Morales declared himself victorious in the election. He resigned at the bequest of Bolivia’s then-chief of military in response to growing chaos from protests around the country.
Morales and several high-ranking Bolivian governmental figures fled the country following the civil unrest and the former president’s resignation. Morales first went to Mexico, where he urged his followers to denounce the transition of power to Añez. However, Morales was eventually granted refugee status in Argentina, where he currently resides. Although it is presumed his move to Argentina was to facilitate his organizing near Bolivia, it raises the question of the already-strained relationships in Bolivia’s foreign relations. When Bolivia’s foreign ministry challenged Argentina for protecting Morales after he continued to ask for political revolution from his party, the country’s foreign ministry responded by stating that they would not recognize Bolivia’s interim government. As elections have been pushed back, Morales continues to organize for his political party, Moviemiento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism, or MAS), from Argentina, frustrating Añez and her current government.
Añez has been in power since Nov. 12th, 2019, declaring her interim presidency after the vacancy of higher-ranking officials left her at the top of the line of succession. Morales and MAS attempted to claim that her ascension was illegitimate, but she maintained her power through congressional support. Although she originally announced that her role would be only to facilitate a fair election free of fraud, she eventually announced that she would run for the presidency herself, and her administration proceeded to charge various MAS members and officials with crimes against the state. The election was originally scheduled for May, but Añez decided to push back the date due to concerns regarding COVID. However, despite taking measures such as an early lockdown, COVID rates across Bolivia are still rising, with a lack of oxygen and personal protective equipment in a damaged healthcare system from Morales’ rule. Bolivian citizens—largely those affiliated with MAS—are frustrated with Añez’ use of the pandemic to interfere with election proceedings.
The struggle for power between MAS and the interim presidency has wider implications for Bolivia’s population. The protests, both last year and now, highlight the tensions felt by the largely Indigenous leftists and the long-unrepresented conservatives in the country. They also illustrate how Morales’ presidency has strained foreign relations, as Bolivia only reestablished diplomacy with the United States during Añez’ interim administration with a visit from a White House senior advisor. As the country looks forward to finally resolving the question of the presidency, nearly a full year after the initial fateful election, these tensions will underscore the country’s final election in the age of COVID.
As the election nears, seven candidates are in the running. According to a Jubileo Foundation Poll in September, Luis Arce, the candidate from MAS, led with roughly 40% of the polled vote. Former president Carlos Mesa polled second. Añez dropped out of the race on September 17th after polling with less than 10%, most likely due to citizens’ concerns over her interim government’s handling of the pandemic.
The final election date is scheduled for Oct. 18th, 2020. After a failed election, an unstable interim government, and continued political tensions during a global pandemic, this new election will define which direction Bolivia’s domestic and international turmoil will take.