From democracy to an ochlocratic intermission: the 2009 Constitution in the Bolivian pendulum

Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé


Constitutional failure best describes the situation in Bolivia at the end of 2019. The academic discourse around the subject is split between those who seek to prove that a coup against president Evo Morales took place and those who see a civic, pro-democracy movement displacing his increasingly authoritarian and illegitimate rule. Following Morales’ ousting by the armed forces and the police as a result of the failed elections of October 2019 amid fraud allegations and social unrest, the questioned interim presidency of Jeanine Áñez soon mismanaged its time in office. Her government exerted unnecessary violence by the armed forces and the police to halt public demonstrations and failed to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic. Áñez attempted to profiteer from an untimely presidential candidacy and she delayed the rerun of elections twice.

New elections were satisfactorily held in October 2020. A clear majority of Bolivians have chosen to hand the government to Luis Arce as president, and David Choquehuanca as vice-president. Both were Evo Morales’ former economic and foreign affairs ministers, respectively. The MAS-IPSP party won with a comfortable majority1 as if to dispel any doubt of the population’s yearning for stability and clarity in politics.

It has been debated whether the end of Mr Morales represented a democratic spring against an ever more authoritarian and illegitimate regime, or whether it was a coup d’état by the reactionary right. Neither of these premises fully captures the upheaval that Bolivia went through at the end of 2019. A breakdown of constitutional order made me president in 2005 (The New York Times 2005). A chain of successive resignations started in 2003 when president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada left Bolivia after the social upheaval left dozens of dead victims as a result of civilian and armed forces confrontations. Carlos Mesa, his vice-president and successor was not able to address their grievances nor was he able to coordinate with the Legislative Congress, a structural governance agenda, on key issues like passing a new hydrocarbons law or calling a constitutional convention. People were out in the streets claiming a renewal of a decayed political system embedded in the Executive and the Legislative offices whose leaders were also moved to decline the presidential succession. Given some similarities between then and now, I will outline the flaws of Bolivian rule of law and its political system that led to its constitutional failure in 2019.

Historically Bolivia is one of the countries that have had the most revolutions and coups worldwide (Coup d’etat Dataset). Throughout time, since the Independence in 1825, social convulsion has ousted governments and military dictatorships have interrupted democratic practices. While the country holds mostly free and fair elections, political parties exist and democratic practices are widespread, street protests often derail the formal proceeding of the formal democratic procedure. This makes Bolivia a Janus-faced democracy, to put it in classical terms. In antiquity, Plato outlined dichotomies of different types of government. Differentiating by the number of people who ruled, Plato defined democracy as the virtuous rule ‘kratos’ of the people in general, the ‘demos’. But the rule of the people also had a problematic side. Plato referred to the ‘bad’ side of democracy as the rule of the mob: ochlocracy. Both forms of democratic rule can be found throughout Bolivian history.

Bolivia has a tradition of democratic values and principles worth the name, but popular dissent has not been properly channeled through the State’s institutions. This has resulted in episodes where the masses (or mobs) have taken over public space forcing governments into action, attempting to take over tacit power, basically ruling over the country themselves. Despite these abrupt changes in political procedure, Bolivia has shown the ability to swing from one type of democratic practice to the other, with the utmost flexibility. The last 38 years of democracy have been the longest period of continued democratic rule, despite its ups and downs, if we consider the ochlocratic intermissions also as a form of democratic rule. This is a persistent state of upheaval, nonetheless. It is the source of the lack of good governance, specifically caused by a broken system of checks and balances, a missing independent and effective judicial system and a predatory presiden-tialism resulting in a democratic-ochlocratic pendulum.

Following this line of thought, Bolivia’s current woes deepen in their scope. The delayed elections after the 2019 crisis to replace the

The 2009 Constitution in the Bolivian pendulum 15 executive and legislative branches may be seen to correct the current extraordinary lack of political legitimacy in the country. Following the lack of positive legitimacy of the Ânez presidency, the elections held are but a short-term solution to the issues at hand. Mere elections do not address the fact that the constitution and the four main organs of the State failed catastrophically in 2019.

With this introduction I want to develop the argument of constitutional failure. At first glance this may sound narrowly legal, yet seen through the prism of Bolivian history, the wider meaning of the term ‘constitutional’ is also to be considered. As opposed to ‘constitutional’ meaning the codified laws that define the structures of a State, ‘constitutional’, when employed not only in the sense of the composition of a State but as the way the State interacts with the society that makes it up, a layer of meaning that transcends legality can be conveyed by the term. Hence ‘constitutional’ can be used to ‘describe the [...] Constitution in terms, not of first principles but of the real behavior of those who operate it’ (Crossman 1966). Accordingly, it is necessary to examine the factors that led to the failure of the constitutional order both in legal and governance-related terms in order to explore a way forward to solve the structural issue of Bolivia’s democratic-ochlocratic pendulum.