Protest State and street politics: Bolivian social movements in the 2019–2020 crisis

Bolivian social movements in the 2019-2020 crisis

Soledad Valdivia Rivera


It is remarkable that the term of the first indigenous president of Bolivia would be both preceded and succeeded by a political crisis and a transitional government. Social movements ousted two presidents in 2003 and 2005, and their support was key in bringing Evo Morales to the presidential seat in 2005 as the leader of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS): at the time foremost ‘the political instrument’ of popular social movements. It was also amidst continued street protests demanding his resignation that Morales too was forcefully removed from power in November 2019. Large differences separate these historical events but they are evidential to the significant consequence of social movements in Bolivian politics. Indeed, the MAS government oversaw radical State transformations and social change directly linked to the demands by social movements, changes felt by vast sectors of society particularly in terms of wealth distribution and socio-political inclusion. This explains the high level of electoral support for the MAS party, having won the 2009 and 2014 national elections with over 60% votes. But even the overwhelming power at the institutional level, derived by its control of both the legislative assembly and the senate by two thirds from 2009, did not prevent social movements from pushing back against controversial governmental plans, destabilizing the administration and at times forcing it to step back. This chapter maintains that social movements have been and continue to be the most decisive actor in the Bolivian political process. For that reason, the State-social movements’ relation is crucial to our understanding of the underlying developments that led up to the 2019-2020 crisis, as well as making sense of the baffling events of October/November 2019. This chapter traces the relation, paying particular attention to the rise of ‘right wing’ social

Protest State and street politics 33 movements in opposition to MAS, arguing that social movements have become a sine qua non, rendering any political force unable to govern without ‘contentious power’.

The chapter’s first part lays the theoretical ground for the analysis, discussing the role of social movements in a democratic political process and introducing the concept of ‘protest State’ for its explanatory power in the case of Bolivia. The following sections trace the development of the State-social movements’ relation under the Morales administration. First, I discuss how the combination of the MAS’ electoral success and the development of the social movement into the most legitimate vehicle of citizen representation and participation shaped the relation in a way that although effective in containing oppositional forces would gradually erode the bond between the MAS and its popular base of support. I then turn to the rise of oppositional social movements around old and new demands that grew stronger and more conflated towards the end of Morales’ third term. In the last section I explain how these two developments set the stage for the fall of Morales, creating a window of opportunity of the failed election for oppositional forces to forcefully take over power with a certain level of legitimacy. In this part, I also discuss how the MAS and anti-MAS flanks evolved under the Anez presidency, paving the way for the return of the MAS. The concluding section reflects on the importance of social movements for the political future of the country.

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