The constitutional derailment of 2019 and the 2020 elections, a new episode
As described above, key institutional issues are at the heart of the Bolivian governance equilibrium. They turned out to be woefully evident during the last 2019 political crisis and of unavoidable attention after the results of the 2020 election.
In praxis and in many ways the Bolivian constitution was ignored by the MAS party and the Morales administration to rule by formally legal but ultimately populist means. However, when the popular legitimacy of the Morales regime began to fade away, the institutions of the Plurinational State had no means to cope with the implosion of power at the executive’s heart. The legislative branch was toothless, the electoral authority was not neutral and the judicial one was all but impartial and cohesive. Social upheaval seemed then the only way that political dissent could be aired. The MAS government, having relied more on the general public’s approval than on the legitimacy enjoyed by rules-bound procedural government, crumbled as the people it supposedly represented turned against it.
The Constitution of 2009 often alludes to collectives, rather than individual rights in the points of political and stately participation (chiefly Article 3). Hereby the collectives, in other words, the masses, have outright constitutional legitimacy which makes them all-powerful, especially when defying all other non-popular actors within the State. An ever-growing distance between the government and society did not find a peaceful resolution in the referendum of 2016, where the government of Morales sought to circumvent the new constitution to grant him reelection. The MAS government sought legal means to subvert its defeat in the so-called 21 F referendum of 2016. In November 2017, the Constitutional Court granted a human right to reelection to all holders of public offices (Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2017). This allowed Mr. Morales to seek reelection in the 2019 elections, when his last mandate would have lapsed. This brazen decision by the Constitutional Court single-handedly broke down the legitimacy of the Constitution as a document of consensus. The hollowing out of Article 156, 168, 285 and 288 regulating national authorities’ terms marked the end of the rule of abstract constitutional law over day-to-day political procedures. This way a door was opened for collective dissidence.
Neither the government at first, nor the people afterward felt fully bound by the 2009 constitution. Open conflict erupted as news of electoral fraud broke during a blackout at night on Election Day. As protestors took the streets and the international community started doubting the legitimacy of the vote, tensions intensified, to the eventual breakdown of peace. Disorder consumed the country as electoral precincts where ballots were held were burned. Compromise seemed possible, yet it did not break through. Ultimately, the rule of law, after a long erosion, was factually non-existent. Mob rule thus replaced the democratic government of Mr. Morales. Ochlocracy took hold of Bolivia after the 2019 elections. It is to be pointed out that, if one follows the liberal doctrine, that democracies primarily divide power into individual suffrage which is then stitched together by deliberation through the means of legislation and elections. In stark contrast, it can be argued that in Bolivia, the over-mighty and institutionalized presence of an overriding collective, or collectives, became destructive to democracy itself. Ultimately, collectives are different in their power than any democratic institution. Theirs is power emanating from an ephemeral yet absolute sense of belonging to a clear-cut cause. Collective power acts fast and is not bound to the outcomes of its exercise.
Democratic institutions, such as elected governments and legislative bodies are slow, deliberative, transparent and contradictory, as well as conciliatory. Democratic institutions, unlike the collectives, need the maximum number of voters to carry their decisions in order
The 2009 Constitution in the Bolivian pendulum 29 to be effective, as they rule by consent and not by dominance. This is the key issue in Bolivia. The institutions there never ruled fully as consent-seeking actors but as channels of collective dominance. Once these channels were severed, the collectives themselves rebelled on the streets against the institutions, and thus ended their rule.