With President Evo Morales’ once immense support in decline, Bolivia’s next presidential election, in October 2019, risks becoming a flashpoint for political unrest — though Morales likely remains just popular enough to win re-election. In February 2016, Morales asked voters to remove presidential term limits from the constitution. After a bare majority said no, Morales turned to the country’s Constitutional Court to end term limits anyway. Now, a growing opposition movement is trying to prevent him from running for office for a fourth time. The president’s defiance of a narrow popular vote makes unrest plausible after next year’s election.
A Growing Resistance
The narrow margin by which Morales lost the 2016 constitutional referendum indicates that the 2019 presidential election could turn into a political confrontation between the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party and the opposition. During the 10 years from his first inauguration in 2006 to the 2016 referendum, Morales had never lost a popular vote; he had even won approval of a new constitution in a 2009 referendum and had won re-election under the new constitution later the same year. In 2014, Morales argued that because the new constitution, which limited presidents to two five-year terms, had rendered his first term incomplete, he should be allowed to run for a third term — which, in effect, would be his second under the 2009 constitution. He won re-election with about 60 percent of the vote, with more than 80 percent turnout. Less than two years later, his attempt to eliminate presidential term limits narrowly failed, in an election with about 85 percent turnout.
It’s clear Morales is losing some of his political support precisely because he’s running for another term. He remains popular with the national unions that have backed his rule from the beginning, such as the Bolivian Workers Central union, and with more local power groups such as the Chapare region coca growers union. However, resistance to Morales’ bid for a new term is visibly growing across the country. Protests supported by the political opposition coalition are now a frequent occurrence in cities nationwide, even in regions such as Potosi where Morales traditionally has been popular. The protesters have been calling on Morales to obey the result of the 2016 referendum and to desist from running again. More than a year ahead of the October 2019 presidential election, voters appear to be closely split between Morales and his closest rival, former President Carlos Mesa. An August poll by Ipsos showed Mesa trailing Morales 25 percent to 27 percent, with a large percentage of Bolivians undecided. Given the narrow margin of the 2016 constitutional vote, and the growing number of voters who disagree with his attempt to secure another term in office, it’s increasingly possible Morales will face a close race in 2019.
However, the growing opposition isn’t necessarily going to unseat him in a head-to-head vote. Mesa’s rising popularity may force a runoff if no candidate wins a majority in the first round of voting, but Morales probably remains popular enough to win re-election. The only question is by how much. A tight election, in which a high percentage of undecided voters swing late toward Morales, raises the likelihood of a contested election — with the accompanying unrest from opposition voters who suspect fraud. So even if Morales wins, the results could be fraught with protests and the political fallout from putting them down.
Business Disruptions, Political Risks
The most consequential type of unrest that would follow a contested election would be protests that block major roadways. As a landlocked, mountainous country, Bolivia has few rivers capable of transporting significant volumes of cargo. Its mountainous terrain also makes the construction of railways a capital-intensive enterprise. As a result, private sector cargo other than natural gas — whether intended for the domestic economy or for export — travels by road. Protesters frequently block them during periods of local unrest, and a nationwide movement against Morales’ re-election would use roadblocks to try to achieve its aims.
Highways linking Bolivia to Paraguay and Brazil in Santa Cruz province would be particularly vulnerable, since Santa Cruz is an opposition stronghold, where dissatisfied voters could mobilize quickly. Bolivia’s two main highways to Chile would also be vulnerable to being cut off. The northern Chilean port of Arica is a key import-export route for Bolivia. Blocked roads leading to the Chilean border would immediately concern foreign businesses operating in Bolivia, particularly import-reliant companies in the retail sector. Aside from disruptions to key trade and travel routes, unrest within cities would affect business operations by preventing employees from coming to work and, in the case of retail and other services, dissuading customers from venturing outside for nonessential trips.
Whether postelection unrest occurs largely depends on next year’s electoral result. If the outcome of the 2016 constitutional referendum and growing nationwide protests are signs of a rising opposition to another Morales term, then more Bolivians are likely to resist his attempt to run again. There currently is no sign that Morales is on the verge of losing his majority support, only that his overall backing is shrinking. But as recent events in Nicaragua show, a violent government response to relatively small protests can quickly sway segments of the population against the president and feed a wave of protests that otherwise would have quickly tapered off.
A prolonged wave of protests would also bring with it greater political risks for the Morales government. While it’s likely that a Morales government supported by a slim majority of the population would be able to cling to power, violently putting down postelection protests would risk attracting negative attention from the United States in the form of targeted sanctions. There’s little that sanctions can do to reverse an electoral outcome, but they could threaten the finances of Bolivian government officials and may influence their willingness to pursue another term in power.