Evo Morales leaves an unhappy legacy in Bolivia
One of Latin America’s poorest and most unstable nations is again in the grip of sectarian violence and political turmoil. This is the unhappy legacy for Bolivia of former president Evo Morales, who resigned on Sunday and fled to political asylum in Mexico after nearly 14 years in power.
Mr Morales’ early years as the country’s first indigenous president promised much. His bold moves to promote the rights of native peoples and to correct historic injustices won deserved international recognition. Nearly a fifth of the population was lifted from poverty, the nation’s diverse ethnicity was recognised in a new constitution and basic services reached remote communities. The nationalisation of the oil and gas industry provided a bountiful supply of government funds.
But although an icon of progressives, Mr Morales was no Latin American Nelson Mandela. Rather than unifying a historically divided nation under the banner of a more diverse society, his style became sectarian and his government authoritarian. Opponents were labelled as racists and some driven into exile, indigenous activists tired of his intolerance, and a growth model based on natural resource exploitation began to run out of steam.
Convinced of his own greatness, Mr Morales ignored a 2016 referendum ratifying presidential term limits, turning instead to a constitutional court packed with supporters to secure a ruling that such restrictions violated his human rights. The construction of a new 25-storey presidential palace further tarnished his image.
Bolivians started to question his motives, but worse was to come: an election last month in which Mr Morales’ claim to have secured a fourth consecutive victory was overshadowed by fraud. The Organisation of American States found tampering on such a scale that it was impossible to verify the result. Supported by the EU, it demanded a fresh election.
As calls grew for him to step down, including from the powerful union confederation, Mr Morales clung on. In the end, a police mutiny prompted the head of the military to ask him to go. But — despite the protestations of left-wingers from Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro to Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn — this was no coup. The generals have not taken power so far and the resignation demand came first and foremost from the streets, rather than the top brass.
Rather than recognise errors, Mr Morales has instead chosen to cast himself as an innocent victim and incite his supporters to fight on. This has further divided an already polarised country and fuelled widespread violence by supporters and opponents of the former government.
Amid a dangerous power vacuum, Tuesday’s move by opposition party senator Jeanine Añez, the deputy senate leader, to assume the presidency on an interim basis offered the only constitutionally appropriate route out of the crisis. Her move was robbed of the necessary quorum by a boycott from Mr Morales’ party but won backing from the constitutional court.
All sides in Bolivia should now refrain from violence and incendiary rhetoric, allow Ms Añez’s interim government to function and make way for fresh elections as soon as practicable. Achieving calm will require considerable restraint on the part of the opposition, and a recognition from Mr Morales’ more hardline supporters that their hero has departed office and disqualified himself from running again because of the fraud he attempted to perpetrate. The wider lesson for the region is clear: respect for institutions and the democratic process should be paramount.