Bolivia shows that democracy can’t be fixed with sticking plasters

Yesterday, Bolivian lawmakers began debating a bill to rescind the disputed October 20th presidential election. They hope to pave the way for a new election and a new electoral board. But the political elite is quickly learning that serious undermining of democratic norms isn’t healed with a click of the fingers.

Recent events in Bolivia have attracted international attention. “After nearly 14 years and his recent attempt to override the Bolivian constitution and the will of the people, Morales’s departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard,” said Donald Trump.

However, in a moment of irony, Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel described it as a “violent and cowardly” attempt against democracy. Venezuelan “leader” Nicolás Maduro further complicated the situation by tweeting: “We categorically condemn the coup realised against our brother president.”

But why is Bolivian democracy in such dire straits?

The reason for the uproar, on both sides of the debate, is that Bolivia provides ample ground to examine the consequences of leaders throwing democratic ideals to the wind.

By ripping up presidential term limits, despite an overwhelming majority of Bolivians voting against such a move in a 2016 referendum, Evo Morales has decimated trust in politics for a generation. Indeed, the fact that the protests have continued to disrupt daily life, even after he stepped down and took refuge in Mexico is evidence that undermined democracies can’t be fixed with sticking plasters or a simple change in leadership.

However, he is not the only one we can credit for eroding faith in Bolivia’s institutions. Katy Watson, the BBC’s South America correspondent, said: “The biggest criticism of Evo Morales was his lack of respect for Bolivia’s democracy – accused of overstaying his welcome and refusing to step down. But the fact that the military has called the shots on the president standing down does not do much for Bolivia’s democracy either.” 

She’s right. Morales is at fault for undermining democracy by first ignoring a national referendum – and then supposedly rigging the subsequent election he stood in. Jim Shultz, executive director of the Democracy Center, said, “there was significant evidence of fraud”.

Morales was eventually forced to step down thanks to mounting protests, but as a result, any potential successor has been marred with the brush of an establishment stitch-up. Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Anez, was forced to cancel an overseas trip due to a “credible threat to her life”.

It would be wildly hyperbolic to explicitly compare any situation in the United Kingdom to what is happening in Bolivia, but the slight similarities are hard to ignore. One of the biggest rounds of applause during the Boris Johnson v Jeremy Corbyn leadership debate on ITV was for the person who asked: “At the heart of all of this is one very simple question: how can we trust you?” 

Whichever side of the fence you fall on Brexit – or even if you sit on it – the general consensus is that the toxicity of the debate and the refusal of a majority of politicians to deliver the referendum result has corroded trust in politics and undermined a common trust in democracy.

Bolivia provides a stark example – and warning – to politicians across the world of just how dangerous it can be to ignore the rules and conventions that underpin democracy. In the UK, just as in South America, deep wounds are not healed easily or quickly.

Across the world, the fragility of democracy is being proven, but only by upholding democracy can liberal countries make a point of difference against authoritarian regimes. Politicians must take steps to defend, and in some cases extend, free expression, protect minorities and fight corruption. Before ignoring, undermining it or, in extreme cases, completely denouncing it – politicians should look to Bolivia and remember that trust in politics isn’t so easy to mend.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.
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