21 10 2020

Evo, regime change and the 3.5%

People protesting the elections 2019 People protesting the elections 2019 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Bolivian_protests

An American researcher made headlines a couple of years ago as she claimed that a study of past experiences showed that non-violent regime-change movements only need to mobilise 3.5% of the population to be successful. That was taken as good news as regime-change can be achieved without need to resort to military force. But what if the majority of the population does not agree with the 3.5%? Is the outcome still democratic? The most recent case is Bolivia.

In Bolivia, hundreds of thousand of people went into the streets in October 2019 as there were claims of electoral fraud during the presidential election, where Evo Morales got 47% of the vote and pulled ahead of the other main candidate, Carlos Mesa, with 10%, enough to avoid a second round. After weeks of unrest, the military and police suggested to President Evo Morales that he should step down. He finally resigned and went into exile. Now, in a rerun of the 2019 election, again with Carlos Mesa as the main opposition candidate, Evo’s party, MAS, now with Evo’s ex-finance minister, Luis Arce, as presidential candidate, has just repeated the supposedly fraudulent result from 2019, winning in first round with over 50% (at the time of writing, with 80% of the votes counted, he has 53% so he will probably end up with 54-55%). And this time the lead over Carlos Mesa is more than 20%.

So the theory is that 3.5% should be enough to topple Evo Morales in 2019. 3.5% of an electorate of around 7.3 million means 255,000 people. There can easily have been that or more in the streets during the protests against the elections in October 2019. These masses of people in the street are an impressive sight.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Bolivian_protests

People are easily swayed by that number of people: they are the many!”. So obviously, Evo must have lost the elections and the 47% was a result of fraud. That was the conclusion in most of the national and international press. Just take a look at all these people in the street! One more dictator brought down as his people rise up in peaceful protest! As Trump stated: this is a victory for democracy. A mantra repeated even by international NGOs.

One of the most visible (and virulent) leaders of the popular protests was Fernando Camacho from the Santa Cruz Civic Movement. Here he gives Evo an ultimatum of 48 hours to resign. This is democracy in working:

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Bolivian_protests

Camacho’s people and their sympathisers surrounded the houses of MAS leaders forcing them into hiding. Evo’s own house in Chapare was vandalised. Camacho was himself a presidential candidate this time and he obtained an impressive result in Santa Cruz Province, winning around 14% of the national vote. The only catch is that 14% is far from enough to win in an electoral democracy.

Many commentators, not particularly friendly to Evo and MAS, now have second thoughts. “If the result is a victory in the first round, the thesis of electoral fraud of last October cannot be upheld”, writes a commentator in the Bolivian daily “La Razón”. The results in Bolivia question the 2019 electoral fraud thesis and legitimize Evo Morales”, writes another in the Spanish “El País”. And even if one year is a long time in politics, it is difficult to reach other conclusion.

In a democracy, minority rights should be respected. People have the right to protest when they consider government policy is harming their rights or interests, and a democratic government should listen when people protest – even if it does not necessarily lead to fundamental changes in the policy. However, in an electoral democracy there has to be very good reasons for going to the extreme of toppling an elected government. Sometimes it is warranted, when the government is unable to govern the country properly and has lost all popular backing. But that should be an exception. And that was certainly not the case in Bolivia in October 2019.

The President-Elect, Luis Arce, and his candidate for Vice-president, David Choquehuanca, have admitted that many errors have been committed during the previous MAS governments and should be rectified. Arce has promised to govern for the whole country, not only for those who voted for MAS. This is a good point of departure, but is of course easier said than done - different groups have different interests, and it is not possible to please everybody. MAS’ core-electorate are the indigenous populations and the poor in the countryside and in the cities. The support MAS had in the urban middle-class, including among the students at the public universities, has been gradually eroding during the last decade. There are challenges enough for MAS.

What the present election has shown is that the fundamental changes that Bolivia has gone through since MAS first came into power in 2006 are not that easily undone. It has furthermore showed that even if Evo Morales has been pivotal to these changes, he and the social movements have actually been able to create a political party which did not collapse when the charismatic leader was taken away. This is a rarity in Latin America.

The question of the 3.5% and democracy transcends Bolivia. The 3.5% may be instrumental in bringing a government down, but what about what follows? The Arab spring” in the Middle East did not pave the way for liberal democracy as many had hoped, and in the elections that followed it was in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood that won – not the young students bringing the 3.5% into the streets. In Syria and Libya it opened the road for islamist forces, some more extremist than others, but islamist all the same. In some countries non-elected governments riding on the wave of the 3.5% took over from elected ones. In short, the 3.5% may end up promoting something they never intended.

In many of these regime-change cases external forces have been active in forming, supporting and guiding these movements. When we are talking about developing countries, this is considered legitimate. When we are talking about Europe and the US, it is called election meddling.


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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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