Bolivia: The Unfinished Democratic Transition

Ramiro Orias*

The failed elections of October 20, 2019 marked a critical milestone in the consolidation of democracy in Bolivia. Whatever the various interpretations of the moment—whether it was electoral fraud or a coup d’état—this episode of political conflict and citizen protest will be remembered in the country’s long-term historical memory as the end of the 14-year government of President Evo Morales, the longest continuous presidential term in the history of the republic.

The political crisis and social upheaval that the country experienced reflected a prolonged, gradual, and cumulative process of institutional weakening, which not only jeopardized the performance of the electoral system but also was rooted in the continuous erosion of the justice system’s capacity to protect citizens’ rights and guarantee the separation and independence of the branches of government.

There are several fundamental data points for understanding how Bolivian democracy deteriorated to the point of constitutional emergency: the inapplicability of constitutional term limits to the presidency; the authorization of the incumbent president’s candidacy for a fourth consecutive term; the subsequent nullification of the elections of October 20, 2019; the resignation of former President Evo Morales and his untimely departure to seek political asylum; the constitutional succession of President Jeanine Añez; her frustrated candidacy and subsequent withdrawal; the successive postponements of the date for new elections following the declaration of a public health emergency in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the extension of terms of office in the executive branch, the legislature, and subnational governments beyond the regularly established limits.

The institutions failed and the situation had to be resolved with the agreement of the main political actors, who outlined a transition route to restore the country’s democratic structures.  

The political crisis caused by the allegations of electoral fraud in October 2019 was resolved democratically in the political agreements to (a) set aside the election results, (b) reconfigure the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE); and (c) to call new general elections. We could say that it was a true State Pact, with the unanimous support of lawmakers from different political camps. Initially, the transitional government of Jeanine Añez tackled these tasks head-on, quelling the country’s unrest after several days of violent conflict that left 27 dead and hundreds of people injured. However, her subsequent decision to run as a presidential candidate seeking a new term, coupled with the postponement of the elections until October 2020 to address the public health crisis, exacerbated political polarization and distorted the democratic transition process that had begun.

The impact of the 2019 political crisis on Bolivia’s democratic institutions has been so intense that it has shaken some of the essential foundations underpinning the electoral system, including the acceptance by all contenders of final and irreversible vote tallies; the stability in office of electoral authorities; and the principle of preclusion, under which completed acts can no longer be reviewed or repeated. Exceptional adaptations had to be made to meet the difficult challenges of the political and public health reality in order to return to constitutional normality. Ultimately, a political consensus was reached to get the electoral process back on track.

Faced with the need to return to institutional normality, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly unanimously passed Law No. 1266 on the Exceptional and Transitional System to Hold General Elections on November 24, 2019. This law, while setting aside the results of the failed election of 2019, convened new general elections for the 2020-2025 constitutional term of office. It also announced that an election for new TSE judges would be held and that the Departmental Legislative Assemblies would conduct a new process for selecting three candidates for the election of judges to the Departmental Electoral Tribunal (TDE), under the responsibility of the House of Representatives. The law establishes that, under the Constitution, citizens elected to public office consecutively during the two previous constitutional periods may not run as candidates for the same elective office, thus authorizing a departure from Constitutional Judgment 0084/2017.

Rather than building the foundations for a national agreement to address the public health emergency, the economic crisis, and the democratic institutional framework, Añez’s transitional government took a partisan approach, promoting her own candidacy and confronting the rest of the political actors. Under the emergency measures and a strict quarantine to deal with the pandemic, there was evidence of corruption, repression of social protest, restrictions on freedom of expression, and political persecution, including actions to interfere with the justice system, all against the backdrop of serious deficiencies in the public health system’s capacity to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The most recent general elections, held on October 18, 2020, marked a return to institutional normality for Bolivian democracy. After restructuring the Electoral Tribunal at the end of 2019, the country now has a new democratically elected government in the executive branch and a new Legislative Assembly elected by popular vote. Regional and subnational authorities have also been replaced. Thus, the elections of departmental governors, mayors, and municipal council members on March 7 signals the end of a phase in the restoration of institutional normality. However, we do not consider the democratic transition to be over. It is unfinished, and the agenda of institutionalizing an independent judiciary with the ability to function as an arbiter in the democratic arena and contribute to national reconciliation is still pending.

We should recall that in the previous electoral contest, one point on which there was a strong consensus among the presidential candidates was the need for a profound reform of the justice system. One objective announced by the government of President Luis Arce is the transformation of the justice system to ensure that it is independent and serves the public. In November 2020, the Minister of Justice set up a plural advisory commission composed of 11 jurists with distinguished professional careers and entrusted them with drafting a proposal for constitutional reform in the administration of justice. However, this initiative was thwarted by the lack of political support and challenges from within the governing party itself, which put the initiative on hold.

Unfortunately, the rationale of democratic compromise has been replaced by that of political sectarianism. Once again, there are signs that the tools of political persecution are being used. Efforts are being made to criminalize the civic and citizen protests of 2019 while pushing for self-amnesty for those who participated in political violence from within the ranks of the ruling party. Certain legal proceedings against opposition politicians that were shelved have been selectively reopened days before the elections to disqualify candidates; the national executive has interfered in local electoral campaigns; vaccines have been used as political currency; career public officials have been dismissed and stigmatized. These developments give the impression that the initial calls for reconciliation are being replaced by a new dynamic of political polarization.

When do democratic transitions end? Transition alludes precisely to metamorphosis, a time in which the dismantling of the old regime is not finished, while the construction of the new institutional framework remains ongoing. Several scholars agree that transitions conclude when: (a) the violence and abuses of the past are overcome to begin authentic processes of truth, justice, and reparation; (b) society reaches a period of coexistence, openness, and change; and (c) genuine democratic institutions are solidified, banishing the authoritarian and corrupt practices that led to violence and confrontation between different sectors of society.

The road to the restoration of Bolivia’s democratic institutions still faces several unresolved challenges. The most difficult task, undoubtedly, is the reform and recomposition of the justice system. It is urgent to provide substance for a new State Pact to recover judicial institutions. The situation remains deeply politically polarized and there is a lack of faith in the current judicial authorities to ascertain the truth of what happened. Because of this, we must move forward with a roadmap to guide and promote institutional reforms for an independent justice system so it can assume its role as guarantor of fundamental rights, which will contribute to consolidating peace and reconciliation in the country.

La Paz, March 5, 2021

*Lawyer and Senior Program Officer, Due Process of Law Foundation – DPLF

Foto: (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Acerca de Justicia en las Américas

Este es un espacio de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF, por sus siglas en inglés) en el que también colaboran las personas y organizaciones comprometidas con la vigencia de los derechos humanos en el continente americano. Aquí encontrará información y análisis sobre los principales debates y sucesos relacionados con la promoción del Estado de Derecho, los derechos humanos, la independencia judicial y el fortalecimiento de la democracia en América Latina. Este blog refleja las opiniones personales de los autores en sus capacidades individuales. Las publicaciones no representan necesariamente a las posiciones institucionales de DPLF o los integrantes de su junta directiva. / This blog is managed by the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and contains content written by people and organizations that are committed to the protection of human rights in Latin America. This space provides information and analysis on current debates and events regarding the rule of law, human rights, judicial independence, and the strengthening of democracy in the region. The blog reflects the personal views of the individual authors, in their individual capacities. Blog posts do not necessarily represent the institutional positions of DPLF or its board.

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