Bolivia’s interim leader should not run in election
When Bolivians rose up and forced their autocratic president Evo Morales to flee into exile last November after he tried to steal an election, the resulting bitter divisions threatened to plunge the country into chaos. Negotiations led to a shaky interim government, which managed to pacify the country despite Mr Morales’ calls for armed insurrection and a siege of the capital. Preparations began for presidential elections under the aegis of a fresh, untainted electoral commission. A more democratic future in one of Latin America’s less stable countries began to look plausible.
That is now under threat — not from the volatile Mr Morales, who continues to fulminate from a berth in neighbouring Argentina, but from the country’s conservative interim president, Jeanine Áñez. A little-known senator from the interior, Ms Áñez was unexpectedly propelled to power after Mr Morales’ exit by virtue of her position as head of the senate, when officials ahead of her in the line of succession resigned. The constitutional foundations for her authority were precarious and her inauguration improvised, but the country yearned for a fresh start after nearly 14 years of Mr Morales. He won praise for his early moves to bolster indigenous rights and redistribute wealth but became increasingly heavy-handed and intolerant.
The former president and supporters of his socialist MAS party attempted to undermine the interim government from the outset, falsely claiming that it was the product of a military coup. Ms Áñez countered that her sole aim was to pacify the country and prepare for free and fair elections. For this aim, she won support from the US, the EU and a majority of Bolivians who yearned for an opportunity to choose a new leader in a fair election.
Yet within weeks, Ms Áñez’s unelected transitional government began to behave like an administration enjoying a majority endorsement at the ballot box. It tore up Bolivia’s leftist foreign policy, breaking off diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Cuba. It ordered the arrest of some of Mr Morales’ acolytes and launched investigations into their supposed misdeeds. It tore down statues erected to the former president and rebranded buildings bearing his name.
Late in January, Ms Áñez dropped a bombshell. She would run for president in the May election while continuing to head the caretaker government. Calling Ms Áñez’s tactics uncannily similar to those of Mr Morales, her communications minister resigned. The interim president was unmoved. Bolivia, she said, needed a candidate who could unite the country in opposition to Mr Morales and the MAS. Her argument was disingenuous. In fact, Ms Áñez’s candidature weakened, perhaps fatally, the campaign of the moderate figure who had led opposition to Mr Morales, ex-president Carlos Mesa.
It undermined the claim of Ms Áñez’s government to be leading an interim administration dedicated to peace and fair elections. It raised serious questions about the impartiality of her appointee to head the electoral commission. Worst of all, it threatens to plunge the country back into conflict.
After its recent history, Bolivia deserves a leader who respects political opponents and avoids divisive rhetoric, and who respects the environment and the rights of women, both weak points under Mr Morales. Above all, the new leader must be able to unite an ethnically and politically divided nation around a democratic, inclusive and prosperous future. The greatest service Ms Áñez could do for her troubled country is to pilot it safely through free and fair elections, and then step down.