Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, will not be permitted to run for re-election in 2020, as confirmed by the result of a constitutional referendum held on February 21. The Bolivian constitution, last modified by Morales in 2009 to allow his second reelection, limits each president to three terms in office. Once again, Morales had counted on his widespread popular support among the country’s large indigenous community for another amendment of the constitution to allow a president four consecutive terms. Voters hotly contested the referendum, with 51% of voters opposing the amendment and 49% in favor; 84% of registered voters participated, a figure that rivals general elections’ turnouts.
Morales was born in a remote indigenous Aymaran village in the Andean highlands in the west of the country. He has worked to represent coca growers and agricultural unions, as well as to advocate for the rights of indigenous people. During his presidency, Morales undertook reforms such as elevating the status of the indigenous Quechua and Aymara languages and adopting a rainbow-patterned wiphala, a traditional piece of heraldry, as an alternate national flag. Morales has also promoted the coca leaf, an important source of nutrition in the local diet, as a national symbol, and has protected the rights of growers.
Elected in 2005, Morales campaigned on a platform centered around socialism, anti-imperialism, and indigenous rights. During Morales’ presidency, he nationalized the natural gas industry, promoted literacy among indigenous communities, and permitted rural farmers to grow coca leaves while restricting the production and trade of cocaine. Morales has become a polarizing figure at home and abroad. His supporters see him as an environmentalist hero who has led Bolivia to strong economic growth and reduced poverty; right-wing opponents take him for an anti-democratic populist; and left-wing opponents condemn his tolerance for a mixed market economy.
Despite his political differences with more hardline leftist leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Morales is still one of the leading figures in Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” the political movement in Latin America characterized by populism and membership of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). “Pink Tide” governments formed in response to years of neo-liberal, pro-Western governments under which income inequality and economic stagnation had become significant issues, often due to austere measures of structural adjustment imposed by international institutions. However, many argue that, in light of growing opposition power in Venezuela and the right-wing government recently elected in Argentina, this “Pink Tide” is receding. Morales’ unsuccessful bid for re-election could be an indication that he is the next “Pink Tide” domino to fall.
While not an immediate fall from power, this referendum indicates weakness in Morales’ support: at least one in five Bolivians who previously supported Morales are now against extending his term. With elections still years away and the opposition highly fragmented, however, it is possible that Morales’s Movement for Socialism will be one of the last of the “Pink Tide” parties to remain in power. As Morales stated when he admitted defeat in the referendum, “We will respect the results, it’s part of democracy…. We have lost the battle, but not yet lost the war.”