Here’s What the Hell Is Happening in Bolivia

Morales' resignation may calm anti-government protests, but his departure leaves a volatile power vacuum.
November 11, 2019, 7:18pm
Here’s What the Hell Is Happening In Bolivia

For the first time in nearly 14 years, Bolivians woke up Monday without Evo Morales as their president. On Sunday, Morales resigned in a televised address, bowing to pressure from the military and weeks of protests over an allegedly rigged election.

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, said he was standing down in a bid to restore calm, saying it was his “obligation as indigenous president and president of all Bolivians to seek peace.” But his shock departure immediately raised fears of a return to the days of military coups in Latin America. Morales himself has stoked such concerns, describing the moves against him as a “civic coup” and claiming that he faced arrest unless he resigned, an allegation the police denied.

While his resignation is likely to calm anti-government protests, analysts warn his departure leaves a volatile power vacuum, in which violent clashes between pro-Morales and opposition supporters are likely to rage on.

How did we get here?

On Sunday, November 10, 2019, the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales resigned from his position in the face of social pressure and the loss of support from the country's Armed Forces. This is an archive photo taken in February 2010. Credit: EL UNIVERSAL / EVZ Agency Archive (GDA via AP Images)

Bolivia, a country of 11 million people, has been mired in protests since the Oct. 20 election, in which Morales was seeking a fourth term after a controversial move by the constitutional court to scrap presidential term limits.

Under Bolivian election laws, a presidential candidate needs to win 50 percent of the vote — or 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the runner-up — to prevent the race going to a second-round runoff. But there's a debate over whether Morales ever reached such thresholds.

Observers became suspicious when election officials suddenly stopped announcing results for about 24 hours without an explanation. When final results were announced, Morales — who was leading by less than 10 points in early returns — had won with just over the 10-point margin needed to avoid a runoff against his closest rival, former President Carlos Mesa.

Mesa and other opposition politicians quickly accused the government of fraud, and protests spread throughout the country. Right-wing protesters began torching election centers, then targeting the homes of several senior members of Morales’ Movement for Socialism party. Three people have been killed and more than 100 injured in clashes so far.

What changed on Sunday?

For weeks, Morales resisted growing calls for him to stand down, arguing the protests represented an illegitimate coup against his rule. But on Sunday, a series of events apparently convinced him to step aside.

  • First, monitors from the Organization of American States published their report into the election. It found there had been “clear manipulation,” and called for the results to be annulled, and the vote held over again under the watch of a new electoral commission. Morales accepted the findings, saying new elections would be held.
  • Then Gen. Williams Kaliman, commander of Bolivia’s armed forces, and national police chief Vladimir Calderón both called for his resignation in the name of restoring order, and urged protesters to call off their uprising.

Their ultimatum was apparently enough to convince Morales that his position was no longer tenable.

“We resign because I don’t want to see any more families attacked by instruction of Mesa and [opposition leader Luis Fernando] Camacho,” Morales said in a televised news conference. “Now stop burning the houses of my brothers and sisters.”

He later claimed on Twitter that police had an “illegal” warrant for his arrest, an allegation police have denied.

The people's will, or a coup?

Opposition supporters celebrated on the streets Sunday night, hailing Morales’ departure as a triumph against a leader who had fraudulently tried to cling to power.

Mesa, a former television journalist who previously served as president from 2003-2005, described the ouster as “the end of tyranny.”

“To Bolivia, its people, the young, the women, to the heroism of peaceful resistance. I will never forget this unique day,” Mesa said in a tweet.

But Morales’ supporters and other leftist governments in the region, such as Cuba and Venezuela, saw the events as a coup and a troubling throwback to a period of military governance in the region.

Mexico, which is sheltering top officials in its La Paz embassy, offered Morales political asylum.

“It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

What happens next?

Four of the top officials constitutionally mandated as successors to the presidency resigned alongside Morales, leaving second senate vice president Jeanine Añez Chávez the next in line.

Añez, who belongs to the opposition Democratic Unity party, said she would assume the role with the goal of calling new elections to be held within 90 days, as required by Bolivia’s constitution. But she'll likely need buy-in from the country's military.

Johanna Marris, political risk analyst at IHS Markit, told VICE News that the stability of the transitional government would depend on the support of the armed forces. The interim government would also have to oversee a restructuring of the electoral commission acceptable to the opposition before new elections could take place.

But while she believed Morales’ departure would take the steam out of anti-government protests, it has done little to halt political violence between rival camps. Pro- and anti-Morales groups clashed Sunday night, carrying out looting and arson attacks on their rivals and their properties, including Morales’ own home.

Marris said that with both camps seeking retribution, the clashes were likely to continue.

Cover: Police clash with supporters of former President Evo Morales on the south side of La Paz, Bolivia, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. Morales' Nov. 10 resignation, under mounting pressure from the military and the public after his re-election victory triggered weeks of fraud allegations and deadly demonstrations, leaves a power vacuum and a country torn by protests against and for his government. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

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