Evo Morales Is Gone. Bolivia’s Problems Aren’t.
The forced ouster of an elected leader is by definition a setback to democracy, and so a moment of risk. But when a leader resorts to brazenly abusing the power and institutions put in his care by the electorate, as President Evo Morales did in Bolivia, it is he who sheds his legitimacy, and forcing him out often becomes the only remaining option. That is what the Bolivians have done, and what remains is to hope that Mr. Morales goes peacefully into exile in Mexico and to help Bolivia restore its wounded democracy.
That is not to say the fall of Mr. Morales is a cause for celebration. On his election, nearly 14 years ago, he became the first indigenous leader in a country previously controlled by a small elite of European descent, and he enjoyed great popularity as he led his country through a period of economic growth and shrinking inequality.
But as happens too often to people in power, he interpreted his popularity, even as it began to wane, as license to perpetuate his rule and to defy the institutions and laws of democracy, including constitutional term limits he himself had enacted.
Predictably, Mr. Morales’s left-wing allies across Latin America, including President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, President-elect Alberto Fernández of Argentina and President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba, joined by the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, cried “coup” at the fall of the last survivor of the Latin America’s “pink tide” of leftist leaders who came to power two decades ago, while right-wing leaders, including President Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, celebrated.
Yet what brought Mr. Morales down was not his ideology or foreign meddling, as he claimed, but the arrogance of the populist, evident in so many other parts of the world — the claim to be the ultimate arbiter of the will of the people, entitled to crush any institution that stands in his way. And while many in the police and military did eventually join in the protests, and the commander in chief of Bolivia’s military finally called on Mr. Morales to step down, they did so long after the protests began.
Once in power, Mr. Morales had steadily concentrated power in his hands and planted loyalists in key institutions. Nearing the two-term limit for presidents set in the Constitution he himself had helped introduce, he called a referendum that would have allowed him to stay in office indefinitely. When it was defeated, he had the Supreme Court, by now stuffed with his loyalists, rule that limiting his time in office somehow violated his human rights. That cleared a run for re-election last month, but the highly fishy vote on Oct. 20 proved to be the last straw for many Bolivians, who took the streets.
After the Organization of American States declared on Sunday that there was “clear manipulation” of the voting in October, Mr. Morales was left with no choice but to resign, bitterly tweeting from an unknown location that “The world and patriotic Bolivians will repudiate this coup.”
The fall of Mr. Morales comes at a troubled time for many democracies as millions of people from Chile to Hong Kong, mobilized by social media, have taken to the streets against arbitrary rule by governments of left and right. Though many of the uprisings have common sources, ranging from economic stagnation to inequality, rapid social change or a sense of alienation, each outbreak of discontent has its distinct causes and potential outcomes.
The citizens who went into the streets in Bolivia were not seeking to reverse Mr. Morales’s social or economic reforms, from which many of them benefited, but to uphold democratic rules and institutions he tried to subvert.
That must be the goal now of all Bolivian parties, and of the United States and other members of the Organization of American States. The abrupt resignation of Mr. Morales has left Bolivia with a vacuum of power, since other senior leaders resigned with him, and with high potential for violence between the ousted president’s supporters, of whom there are still many, and opponents.
A leading opposition politician, Jeanine Añez Chavez, the second vice president of the Senate who appears to be next in line for the presidency, went on television offering to lead the country to new elections. The sooner they can be held the better, and if Mr. Morales hopes to salvage any of his legacy, he would do well to call on his backers to clear the way.