Bolivia’s Crisis of Legitimacy

By: Allison Fedirka     

After the recent wave of unrest in South America that included Ecuador, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia, some are beginning to wonder what will happen next.

Each country will respond to the turmoil in different ways, but they all have one thing in common: They need to maintain or restore the legitimacy of the government and build public confidence in whatever solution the government comes up with to meet the demands of protesters.

Without this, the unrest is likely to continue and will fade out only as protesters grow fatigued or through a crackdown by security forces.

But the legitimacy of the government is a larger problem for some countries than others.

Bolivia will face the biggest challenge because the power vacuum created by the unrest there has undermined the legitimacy of the current and future governments, leaving the population divided.

Establishing Legitimacy

The question of a government’s legitimacy is a particularly sensitive topic for young democracies in South America.

In the not-too-distant past, several countries in the region were ruled by dictatorships, authoritarian leaders and military regimes.

People in these countries over the age of 50 – some of whom hold positions of power in the government and military – can still recall what life was like under these repressive regimes.

Democracy is a relatively new phenomenon in South America, especially when compared to places like the United States or Western Europe.

And while government legitimacy is important in all countries, South American nations are more mindful than most that a government’s claim to authority can’t be taken for granted.      

Elected officials are constantly aware that a social movement can thwart their ability to pass laws or stay in power.

Legitimacy becomes a critical question particularly during transitions of power, especially when the transition does not occur through a scheduled, democratic election.      
Political parties and civil society organizations see transparency and free and fair elections as necessary before elected leaders can be given the mandate to govern.

Therefore, many struggle to see as legitimate any government or official who rose to power without going through the electoral process.

Such value is placed in the democratic process that any government or leader who does not win the approval of the people through an election is seen as a threat to democracy itself.

Take Paraguay and Brazil as examples.

In both countries, recent presidents were removed from office through impeachment: Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.

Both Lugo and Rousseff, along with their supporters, referred to their impeachments as coups and criticized the congressional proceedings under which their removal from office was executed.

By questioning the legitimacy of the impeachment proceedings themselves, they were also questioning the legitimacy of the next leaders who would take over as president.

As these cases show, it’s incredibly difficult to justify the removal of an elected government and to build support for a government that takes over from an ousted leader.

Legitimacy is clearly a necessary component for the success of any government, but it’s also critical to the success of any strategy to deal with social unrest.

Trying to bring order by using excessive force or by introducing reforms that offer no real change and don’t have broad support among the public often don’t work in the long run; these strategies resemble the behavior of dictatorial governments. But doing nothing is not an option.

Ecuador, Chile and Colombia have already started to build support for their strategies.

The governments have called on an array of political players, thought leaders and social groups to participate in a national dialogue geared toward finding solutions.

In Ecuador, President Lenin Moreno has met with indigenous leaders to discuss economic reforms.

Chile has started making arrangements for a referendum on constitutional changes (one of the key demands of the protesters) in the first half of next year.

The government also recently proposed a law that would allow the military to be deployed to protect critical infrastructure without declaring a state of emergency.

In Colombia, the government launched a “national dialogue” over critical social and economic issues and introduced economic reforms to decrease living costs.

In all these cases, getting buy-in from civil society has been critical to establishing the legitimacy of the government approach and avoiding backlash and further disarray.

Bolivia’s Power Vacuum

Bolivia, however, faces a bigger challenge than these other examples when it comes to legitimacy.

The protests in Bolivia resulted in the resignation of President Evo Morales, who held office for 13 years, longer than any other post-independence Bolivian leader.

Bolivia’s history is riddled with political and military strongmen, and Morales’ long tenure in office resembled the hold on power of other “caudillos” in Bolivia’s past.

It enabled him to exert undue influence over certain institutions.

In a decision that was widely criticized, the Supreme Court, for example, ruled that Morales could run for another term in 2019 despite a 2016 referendum in which a majority of Bolivians voted against extending term limits.

In Bolivia’s case, restoring the legitimacy of the government goes beyond finding a new president or passing legislation to meet protesters’ demands; it requires the reconstruction and legitimization of all major government institutions.

That’s because Morales’ ouster has left a power vacuum in Bolivia.

Normally, when a leader is removed from office, the post gets filled by the next in line to the presidency.

But in Bolivia, Morales stepped down from office (at the request of the military) rather than being removed by force.

After his departure, many other high-ranking government officials also resigned, including the vice president, the parliamentary leader and the president of the Senate, gutting the government of all the senior officials who would have been next in line for the presidency according to the country’s constitution.

Senate Vice President Jeanine Anez ultimately took over, even though this post is not included in the line of succession stipulated in the constitution, because the remaining lawmakers (most of whom were members of the opposition party to which Anez belongs) agreed that this was the most logical solution.

Morales’ supporters, however, have attacked Anez’s presidency as illegitimate, though their activities have been limited thanks to the strong police and military presence on the streets.

The power vacuum will make it extremely difficult to legitimize whoever comes to power next in Bolivia.

Anez’s caretaker government has tried to impose a smooth transition.

She has cleared the military of leaders who pushed for Morales’ resignation and worked with other members of the government to arrange elections for early 2020.

Efforts are also underway to sign unity pacts with protesters in the hopes of reducing street violence and the number of security forces needed to keep the peace.

At the same time, however, she has already taken measures to realign Bolivia’s foreign policy toward the U.S. and its regional allies.

Moreover, there are several key questions about the upcoming election that remain unanswered. First, who will be eligible to run for president?

Some Morales supporters still want to see him or his close allies like Vice President Garcia Linera run for office.

Some have also questioned the electoral court authorities who were removed when Anez took power and were replaced with people who were more in line with the opposition.

Voter turnout and public safety will also be a concern given the continued clashes between Morales’ supporters and opponents and the heavy presence of police and military forces.

Elections are necessary to establish the legitimacy of the next Bolivian leader, but whoever comes out on top will still need to work hard to maintain the legitimacy of their administration throughout their tenure.

Legitimacy is a critical question for all South American governments, particularly during times of major unrest.

It is built largely by getting civil society groups on board with government policies and reforms.

But the power vacuum left by Morales’ resignation poses a particularly difficult challenge for Bolivia’s next government.

Lessons learned from Bolivia’s experience may serve as a blueprint for other countries such as Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua that could face a similar fate in the future.

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