Tyrant or saviour: What would Evo Morales’ re-election mean for Latin American democracy?
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Tyrant or saviour: What would Evo Morales’ re-election mean for Latin American democracy?

While the ‘pink tide’ recedes across much of the continent, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa find themselves as the last bastions of popular socialism in Latin America.

On 21 February 2016, Bolivians will go to the polls to vote in a nationwide referendum to modify the nation’s constitution, enabling Morales to stand for re-election. Morales is expected to win; paving the way for him to stay in power until 2025.

In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro’s failure to uphold the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, saw his party fall short in December’s national assembly elections amid widespread food and power shortages.

Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff faces a series of corruption allegations and even impeachment; while in Argentina populist ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was dragged – reluctantly to say the least – from the corridors of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires after completing a final term in office; ceding power to the free-market-oriented government of Mauricio Macri.

The left-leaning governments of Correa and Morales have sought to tighten their own grip on power through the promotion of ‘indefinite re-election’ bills. For his part, Morales has made a series of manoeuvres to extend his term.

Staying in power…

By promoting a new constitution for Bolivia in his pre-election campaign – which was approved by plebiscite and enshrined into law in 2009 – Morales re-founded the nation as the ‘Plurinational State of Bolivia’. This effectively voided his time in office until that point and Morales began a new, ‘first’, term leading a ‘new’ country.

As such, by the time he completes his current tenure in 2020, Morales will have governed Bolivia for 14 years – four years longer than the maximum term stipulated by the 1967 Constitution under which he assumed power. In December 2015, in spite of intense opposition, Ecuador’s legislature removed constitutional restrictions to allow for the indefinite re-election of officials, including the president.

However, the ruling will not apply to the 2017 elections, meaning Correa won’t be able to run for another consecutive term.

Coming to power in 2006 with an unprecedented 54 percent of the vote, Morales became – if he was not already – a symbol of Bolivia’s struggle against a durable political class which failed to represent its people.

Morales was an anti-establishment figure who sought to create “equality, justice and peace” for ordinary Bolivians, taking the needs and concerns of the indigenous majority into consideration. In this regard, he now presides over by far the most diverse cabinet in Bolivia’s history in terms of class, gender and ethnicity.

Throughout Bolivia’s history, political stability has proved elusive. Between securing independence in 1825 and a return to democracy under the civilian government of Hernán Siles in 1982 – ending 18 years of military rule – there were 157 instances of governments being deposed by force.

Far from being an issue consigned to the past, successive governments had been forced to resign in the years preceding Morales’ election. Having provided stability, participation and equality, Morales could argue that – far from being a “tyrant” – his re-election is a necessity if Bolivians are to continue enjoying these values. Provided he is elected fairly and democratically once more; the argument is compelling.

Changes afoot

There can be no doubt that the face of Latin American democracy is changing. The left-leaning governments associated with the ‘pink tide’ are gradually losing impetus and finding themselves replaced by new administrations in the face of a region-wide economic slowdown.

If Morales is successful in his bid for re-election, then he shall secure the legacy of the ‘pink tide’ era for a little longer. The indefinite re-election question, therefore, will not instigate a new wave of ‘pink’ politics; rather it shall allow Bolivia and Ecuador and their leaders to continue as the flag-bearers of popular socialism following the decline of the model in Venezuela.

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Evo Morales could run for re-election