Why Is Evo Morales Suddenly No Longer President of Bolivia?

The ousted leader is calling it a “coup,” but he entered dangerous legal territory in pushing for an unprecedented fourth term.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Then-Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks at a press conference in La Paz, Bolivia, on Oct. 24.
Then-Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks at a press conference in La Paz, Bolivia, on Oct. 24. Javier Mamani/Getty Images

Bolivia is in political chaos a day after longtime President Evo Morales suddenly resigned following three weeks of violent protests over the most recent elections and his bid for an unprecedented fourth term. Morales and other left-wing politicians around the world denounced what they called a “coup,” while opposition parties said Morales tried to rig the elections and needed to go.

What is going on?

Morales announced that he was resigning as president of Bolivia on Sunday, just hours after a devastating report on the integrity of the Oct. 20 elections was released by the Organization of American States (OAS). He finally stepped down after three weeks of violent protests across the country that saw several people killed, hundreds injured, and property destroyed. The final straw for Morales seemed to be a request from Bolivia’s army chief that he step down in order to preserve public order; Bolivian police had already sided in many cases with the protesters.

Morales’s resignation—alongside that of his vice president and the heads of both chambers of the legislature—has left a political vacuum in Bolivia. Now it’s up to Morales’s remaining political allies in the legislature and opposition politicians to figure out how to cobble together an interim government that can call fresh elections, tamp down disorder, and chart a new political path after almost 14 years of left-wing leadership in Bolivia. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, a former labor activist and coca grower, belied initial fears over his socialist bent and eventually presided over a period of strong economic growth, fueled by the country’s natural gas riches and appetite for commodities from countries like China.

So was it a coup?

Morales claimed as much when he stepped down on Sunday, accusing the “architects of the coup” of “destroying the rule of law.” And plenty of other left-wing politicians from Latin America and the rest of the world echoed that charge, including leaders, former leaders, and high-profile politicians in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Greece, and Minnesota. Of course, Morales was calling it a coup before he ever left office: A week after the marred elections, with protests already mounting, he denounced opposition to his staying in office as a coup.

It’s not a coup in any sense of the word, and Bolivia and Latin America have experience with actual coups. The army did not take charge of Bolivia. Morales, despite his protestations that police had an arrest warrant for him, is not in custody or even being sought.

The reason the popular protests reached such a peak that even the police and the army abandoned Morales is twofold: He ran for a fourth term as president despite that being blatantly unconstitutional, and there are serious allegations about the integrity of the Oct. 20 elections, in which Morales claimed to eke out a victory.

A fourth term? The Bolivian Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, limits presidents to two terms.

Yes, but Morales doesn’t count his first term, from 2006 to 2009, since it largely predated the modern Bolivian Constitution. So his second and third terms for him were his first and second. Even so, a third (fourth) term seemed out of reach, which is why Morales pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2016 to allow him to run for a third official term—except that the proposal narrowly failed in a public referendum, rendering it moot. Undeterred, Morales appealed to his own hand-picked Supreme Court, which ruled that preventing Morales from running for president would infringe his human rights. So he decided to run again in 2019, even though there’s no constitutional grounds for that whatsoever. That was one big source of opposition anger even before Oct. 20.

And then there were the sketchy elections.

That was the stark conclusion of the expert observer group sent from the OAS, which set out to audit the controversial elections. Its findings, released Sunday in preliminary form, were scathing. There were allegedly all sorts of fairly usual shenanigans, such as ballot stuffing at certain locations. And there was terrible IT protocol, including the unexplained use of an unauthorized server located abroad to handle part of the data transmission with the vote count. But the biggest question mark over the elections centers on a suspicious halt in the recount. With a little over 80 percent of the vote in, and Morales holding a slight lead but losing steam, the official vote count inexplicably stopped for a full day. When it restarted, Morales had somehow snagged the overwhelming majority of the outstanding votes, while opposition candidates nosedived. That mysterious late surge gave Morales just enough cushion to avoid a runoff (either win 50 percent of the vote or at least hold a 10-point edge over the next candidate). Most analysts agree that a united opposition would have overcome Morales in any runoff, but there wasn’t one.

“The audit team cannot verify the results of the present election, and thus recommends a new vote,” the OAS team concluded.

So what happens next?

That’s still not clear. The line of succession is laid out in the Bolivian Constitution: first comes the vice president, then the head of the senate, then the head of the lower chamber. But they all resigned. So there’s nobody left with an outright constitutional mandate to even form a transitional government that can organize a new electoral commission and call new elections. According to the constitution, elections need to take place in 90 days; some opposition politicians want elections even sooner.

Some opposition leaders in the Senate suggest that by default, the vice president of the upper chamber is next in line. But to even get there, the legislature needs to meet and formally ratify the resignations of Morales and his lieutenants, as well as to elect new heads of the legislative chambers. And one outstanding question is whether legislators from Morales’s party will show up to enable a quorum or if they will boycott the proceedings.

For now, Bolivia is left rudderless. This week will be crucial to ensuring that the country’s democratic future is solid.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP