The End of an Era: What Evo Morales’s Referendum Loss Means for Bolivia

Alex Sadler, JHU:

For the first time in 10 years, Bolivia faces a new problem: uncertainty. Last week, Bolivians voted to change the Constitution in order to allow popular president Evo Morales to extend his term from 2020 to 2025. Morales, who has already been in power since 2006, conceded defeat last Wednesday, waiting until three days after the voting ended.

The first indigenous President of Bolivia, Evo Morales had an unlikely path to the presidency. Starting his political career as a cocalero activist, a representative of the coca leaf growing union of Bolivia and Peru, Morales became a strong, influential figure leading protests, shutting down streets, and fighting for the working Bolivian. After establishing the Movement for Socialism party and unsuccessfully running for president, Morales became the first Bolivian to win the president election with an absolute majority in 40 years. Popular from the beginning, Morales was viewed as the people’s president, reducing income inequality, boosting literacy rates, and even taming the economy. His first year in office ended without a fiscal deficit, the first time in 30 years.

Once lauded as one of the few incorruptible Latin American leaders, Morales emerged as a leader of the pink tide coasting to reelection for a second and third term in Bolivia. Hoping to continue his reign, Morales introduced a referendum in 2015 to change the Bolivian Constitution to allow him to run for an unprecedented fourth term in 2019, extending his administration until 2025. Wary of keeping the same leader for over two decades, Bolivians voted against the constitutional change last Sunday in a referendum resulting in a 51%-49% result against Morales.

While Morales and his policies remain very popular in Bolivia, his squeaky clean incorruptible image as the true man of the people has certainly faded. Gone are the days of playing soccer on the streets of La Paz, or barefoot campaigning, Morales has been shrouded by the cape of establishment and elitism. A Guardian article profiling Bolivian voters characterized the vote as less of a vote against Morales and more of a vote towards positive change. The Guardian interviewed former Morales supporter Tatiana Araniea, who explained why she voted against Morales: “I have always voted for the process of change and I support the progress we’ve made in Bolivia, but this time I voted no.”

Leading up to the eventual referendum defeat, Morales’s third term in office has taken a few hits and does not hold the same popularity that his first two terms held. The Bolivian economy, growing at a yearly rate over 5% has stuttered and just last Friday, authorities arrested his former girlfriend (with whom he had a child out of wedlock) for peddling favors in return for government contracts. Although people are grateful for Morales’s accomplishments and progress he brought to Bolivia, the voters have shown they are ready for a change.

Political pundits have marked Morales’s loss as one of the final dominoes to go down amongst the leftist pink tide wave that controlled large swathes of Latin America since the turn of the century. The political landscape of Latin America has changed drastically in the last few months as defeats have left Venezuela’s ruling socialist party without the majority in the National Assembly for the first time in over 15 years, a resurgence of neo-liberalism under Argentina’s new president, Maurcio Macri, and poor approval ratings for the leftist presidents of Brazil, Ecuador, and Chile. Morales was viewed as a leftist stalwart in Latin America with true staying power who would be able to outlast his contemporaries throughout the region.

While Morales’s loss can and will be framed as the end of the left as we know it in Latin America, some believe that would be jumping to a rash conclusion. Morales’s loss was not a vote against the left; it was a vote against authoritarianism and a leader overstaying his welcome. Popular support for Morales remains high, the country continues to progress and achieve like it never has before, with three years remaining in Morales’s last term. This gives Morales and his party ample time to find a suitable replacement to continue the party’s progressive platform. The Morales era may be coming to an end in Bolivia, but the progressive movement might just be getting started.

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