Will Bolivia allow President Evo Morales to run for re-election? It all depends whether a constitutional court decides he is currently serving his first or second term.
A quick comment (since I’m a Bolivianist, after all) on this evolving story (ironically, as I head off to my Populism in Latin America course):
The legitimacy of the reelection of presidents is a tricky thing, conceptually. On the one hand, there’s nothing intrinsically bad (or even undemocratic) about allowing a sitting president to run again for office. Assuming it’s a free & fair election (which I still think is the case in Bolivia), then there’s no clear reason why a popular majority can’t reelect a president.
The problem has to do with long term consequences of repeated reelections. Evo Morales came to power in 2006 (he was elected in December of 2005, but inaugurated in January of 2006). If he wins reelection (which he almost certainly would, if he were to run) next year, he will have already been in office for 8 years. If he won another five year term, he would be president for 13 years at the end of that term. That would be one year longer than the 12-year post-revolutionary MNR government that lasted from 1952-1964 (and ended in a military coup). The long term consequences are two fold: 1) Is it desirable for any one person to hold power for that long? 2) What does it say about the institutional capacity of the party or movement (MAS) that there’s no other leader waiting to take the reigns of power in an orderly, inter-party transition?
The first question could be solved by strong institutional checks and balances, primarily by strengthening the legislature, the courts, and the local and regional autonomous governments. Unfortunately, those checks have been eroded over time. The 2011 judicial elections were poorly orchestrated and have weakened the courts. The legislature is dominated by MAS and now serves as rubber stamp for presidential prerogatives. And the local and regional governments are regularly harassed by the central government which is glad to use an anti-corruption law to remove opposition mayors and governors (it works because the law states that anyone accused of a crime is removed automatically during the investigation; not surprisingly, almost all such cases involve opposition politicians; and the president is immune from the law).
The real problem is the long term consequences for MAS. By arguing that “only Evo” can lead MAS and secure the gains of his government, which are significant (in particular the increased attention to poverty & inequality, an emphasis on multicultural rights & autonomy, and the recent decentralization reforms), suggests that MAS is weak. Protecting the regime’s gains will mean institutionalizing the regime, not securing the leader’s power. Arguing that “only Evo” can defend the regime suggests that either (a) no one else within MAS is capable or (b) no one else within MAS believes in the regime. At some point, Evo Morales will have to give up power (either through an orderly transition to a successor, or losing an election, or being overthrown, or death). The sooner MAS begins to prepare for that transition, the better. A strong MAS can ensure that it either achieves an orderly transition (with or without the death of the leader), it can prevent a coup, or it can survive as a loyal opposition to any new government. That’s the real test for the new Bolivian regime.
Even looking only at Bolivian history is instructive. The MNR managed to share power among its caudillos (primarily Paz Estenssoro and Siles Zuazo) at first, but then it broke down. The attempt to create a dominant-party system ultimately failed and led to a military crackdown that reversed many of the revolution’s gains and persecuted many of its leaders. Similarly, it was the inability of the great caudillos of the 1980s and 1990s Bolivian parties (Paz Zamora, Hugo Banzer, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and even Carlos Palenque) to transfer leadership to a successor that doomed those parties.
If MAS is a true instrument of popular power, with a strong institutionalized coalition of key sectors of Bolivian society, then it should be able to present a slate of future leaders to the electorate. Because if the party is merely a vehicle for Evo Morales, then it will likely suffer the same fate as Condepa. Does MAS want to look forward to descending into the kind of crass soap opera drama that was the fight for Condepa’s remains among Palenque’s family and friends? And as crass as that was, Condepa was never in power. How much more crass (and chaotic) would such a struggle be when the contestants aren’t just picking over the remains of a political project, but a government apparatus?