Majoritarianism, Pluralism and Liberalism: Bolivian Democracy Strikes a Delicate Balance

Political scientists generally view democracy as a multifaceted concept, calling to mind the principles of majority rule, free and fair elections, equal opportunities to influence political outcomes, and the checks and balances. How modern democracies strike a balance between these various—and sometimes competing—facets of democracy constitutes a “wicked problem.” For example, while the tenets of liberal democracy might prioritize the separation of powers to safeguard minorities from the tyranny of the many, majoritarian democracy might interpret the rights and interests of the political majority to supersede all others, and envision electoral democracy as an embodiment of the sovereign will of the people. Pluralist democracy, by contrast, emphasizes the diversity of opinion in an inclusive society, such that many different groups might meaningfully participate in state decision making. Scholars readily acknowledge—and this short description should lay plain—that some democratic ideals are in direct tension with others, such that no system can perfectly be everything at once.

Contemporary Bolivian democracy is a case study in the balance of several such ideals. My ongoing research describes how contemporary Bolivia is weighing in favor of both pluralist and majoritarian facets of democracy, at the expense of liberal democratic ideals.

Situated in the land-locked heart of South America, Bolivia is about 1.5 times the size of Texas, with a national economy that is approximately the size of the state economy of either Vermont or Wyoming. It is both poorer, and more unequal, than many of its South American neighbors. Like the United States, it is a separation of powers system with a directly elected president and national legislature, and a formally independent constitutional court. Most Bolivians self-identify as mixed in their ethnic heritage (mestizo), and Bolivia is the ancestral homeland of more than 36 state-recognized indigenous groups.

Since 2005, Bolivia has witnessed a dramatic transformation of its political landscape, one which has sought to formally acknowledge said ‘plurinational’ heritage, and correct for the long-entrenched exclusionary patterns that marginalized indigenous Bolivians. At the forefront of this transformation has been President Evo Morales Ayma and his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, whose ‘citizen revolution’ has included an overt prioritization of indigenous identity, and has resulted in an unprecedented incorporation of women and indigenous leaders into the national administration of the Bolivian state. Beyond the concerted effort to expand descriptive representation, President Morales and the MAS have overseen a steady economic progress, fueled in large part by state-led growth, and implemented poverty alleviation projects that have to reduced illiteracy and inequality while expanding the middle class. Since first coming to power in 2005, the MAS has expanded from a coalition of peasant unions, to incorporate indigenous peoples’ movements, organized labor, miners organizations and a broad swath of the urban middle class. President Morales was originally elected president in 2005 with 53.7% of the vote, though these gains have led to an expanded vote share in both 2009 (64.2%) and in 2014 (61.3%).

Yet the wide majorities that fueled President Morales’ ascent have brought with them a slow erosion of the checks and balances that the institutional separation of powers implies. The broad electoral support for President Morales translated into a super-majoritarian control of the bicameral legislature (67%), which the MAS has controlled since 2010. This, combined with strict party militancy has meant the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (ALP) is a de facto extension of the executive branch. The nomination of judges to the national Bolivian courts has proven a fait acompli— MAS party leaders have unilaterally selected high court judges and magistrates to the courts in both 2011 and 2017. On the whole, the MAS has stacked state agencies with patronage appointees to placate key political constituencies, written legislation to curtail the freedom of press, and deployed the coercive apparatus of the state to malign and demobilize the political opposition. In sum, the liberal aspect of Bolivian democracy is in peril, despite the fact the MAS and President Morales have remained well within their constitutionally prescribed legal authority.

The most recent blow to liberal democracy came in December of 2017, when the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal cleared the way for President Morales to stand for a fourth consecutive term. This decision not only overturned the Bolivian constitution, but it ran counter to a 2016 constitutional referendum in which an absolute majority of Bolivian voters rejected an extension to presidential term limits. Daily protests have since erupted throughout the country, and a super majority (66%) of voters cast deliberately spoiled ballots in the country’s most recent election. Even still, President Morales has refused to relent.

This week marks the 12th year anniversary of President Morales’ first inauguration as president.The progress in the areas of descriptive representation, macroeconomic stability and poverty reduction have been impressive and undeniable. If re-elected in 2019, President Morales would have served as president for two decades. An original survey I conducted with support from the FSU Office of Research shows that more than 60% of Bolivians surveyed opposed President Morales’ stated intentions to pursue a fourth consecutive term in office. If correct, the same majority of Bolivian voters that brought President Morales to power may hold the seeds of his electoral demise. Whether President Morales will concede the logic of majoritarianism when said majority seeks to end his tenure, is a central question for the future of Bolivian democracy.  

Dr. Amanda Driscoll is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. She studies electoral systems and Latin-American politics. 



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