Bolivia’s 2019 Election and Beyond: Coup or Popular Uprising?

Brent Bihr. Brent is a recent JD graduate (2021) of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. While an undergraduate, Brent spent a summer as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia. He hopes to become a federal prosecutor focusing on border crime following his two-year clerkship in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.

Observers of Latin American politics are divided in their views of the 2019 Bolivia elections and their aftermath, with some calling it a “military coup”[1] and others a “popular” uprising.[2] In 2019, significant electoral irregularities led Bolivians to cast off President Evo Morales, an increasingly unpopular and authoritarian leader. Despite his unpopularity, the Bolivian police and military prematurely pressured Morales to leave power rather than allowing for a re-vote or a runoff. In turn, Bolivia’s choppy political waters returned Morales’s party to power in October 2020—sans Morales. This blog post explains why neither “coup” nor “popular uprising” accurately describes Bolivia’s 2019 elections. Rather, a proper understanding of the events of the election illuminates the current political situation in Bolivia. It may also contain lessons for elections in the United States.

Bolivia is a country historically plagued by political turbulence, to which President Evo Morales brought a semblance of stability following his election in 2005.[3] Morales ruled from the helm of his party, the left-wing Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).[4] He quickly aligned himself with other leftist Latin American strongmen such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.[5] Like his role models, Morales’s regime routinely targeted dissenting media outlets, limited freedom of association, manipulated opinion polls, and subjected human rights groups to verbal abuse and targeted tax investigations.[6] Morales and his party also systemically cowed the Bolivian judiciary in order to maintain power and persecute political opponents.[7] Some of Morales’s political opponents faced as many as forty criminal charges at once.[8] To clear his path to the 2019 election, Morales had the MAS-dominated Constitutional Court overturn a 2016 constitutional referendum after Bolivians voted to bar Morales from running for an unconstitutional fourth term.[9]

Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Morales traditionally enjoyed strong support from indigenous Bolivians who benefited from greater economic benefits under his leadership.[10] But by the time of the 2019 elections, many Bolivians had turned against Morales as a candidate.[11] Traditional sources of MAS support, indigenous Bolivians and the Bolivian Worker’s Confederation, turned against Morales following clashes over tribal lands, Morales’ ostentatious, new presidential palace, and electoral irregularities.[12] Even in Morales’s base of registered MAS voters, only 26 percent would cast a ballot at all in 2019.[13] Dissatisfaction within the police and military led to their eventual alliance with the anti-Morales demonstrators who precipitated Morales’s resignation.[14]

Facing these political challenges, Morales and his loyalists had an incentive to cheat in the 2019 elections. Morales’s chances for victory were much better in the first round of voting, when he would face a fractured opposition of eight candidates.[15] When Bolivians went to the polls on October 20, 2019, Morales would need to beat the runner-up by 10 percentage points to avoid a runoff election later in the year.[16] In a runoff, only one candidate would have stood against Morales, and the opposition vote would have consolidated behind that single candidate.

On the night of the 2019 election, Bolivia’s preliminary vote count reported that Morales held a 7.9 percentage point lead over the runner-up—not enough to avoid a runoff.[17] Thirty minutes later, the preliminary vote count inexplicably froze for an entire twenty-four hours.[18] When the count resumed a day later, Morales’ lead had conveniently jumped to 10.15 percentage points—just enough to avoid a runoff election.[19] Bolivia’s opposition parties cried foul, and their claims of fraud were soon joined by the European Union, the United States, and international election observers sent by the Organization of American States (OAS).[20]

Thousands of opposition protestors took to the streets following the election, paralyzing major cities around Bolivia and clashing with pro-Morales demonstrators and security personnel.[21] In response to the spiraling violence, Morales agreed to allow the OAS to audit the election results and promised to abide by the recommendation of the audit team.[22] Subsequent OAS reports found significant electoral irregularities, including falsified electoral signatures and the transfer of election data to unauthorized computer servers.[23] The OAS report recommended a new election be held.[24] Before Morales could comply, members of the police and military began joining opposition protests, vocally refusing to repress protestors.[25] After the commander-in-chief of the military recommended that Morales step down, Morales resigned and fled the country.[26] He complained that the military’s failure to back him constituted a right-wing “coup,” while the opposition hailed the military for refusing to suppress a “popular revolt.”[27]

Following Morales’ ouster, the interim government quickly became unpopular and was widely criticized for political reprisals, crackdowns on pro-MAS demonstrators, and the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.[28] However, the interim government also implemented much-needed change to the electoral system ahead of the 2020 Bolivian elections.[29] After a year of bloody turmoil, Bolivians returned to the polls in October 2020 and elected Morales’ hand-picked successor to the presidency.[30] The elections were hailed by all participants and by international observers as free, fair, and “exemplary.”[31]

Morales’ supporters were quick to hold up the 2020 election results as proof that the aftermath of the 2019 election was a coordinated right-wing and international conspiracy to oust a popular indigenous president.[32] The reality is quite different. True irregularities, Morales’ authoritarian tendencies, and his growing unpopularity legitimately called into doubt the 2019 election results. In contrast, the unpopularity of the interim government and the resounding integrity of the 2020 elections left no room for any observers to question the result. The contrasting results in 2019 and 2020 are most likely explained by many Bolivians, including Morales’s traditional base, being tired of his personal stranglehold on office. Even so, less haste on the part of the police and military to pressure Morales to resign before the runoff might have spared Bolivia a year of turmoil, destruction, and bloodshed. Americans, like Bolivians in 2019, are right to be wary of attacks on an independent judiciary, politically motivated prosecutions, manipulations of opinion polls, and campaigns to censor dissenting voices. Abusing electoral victory can plant the seeds of political repression and turmoil.

[1] Glenn Greenwald, The New York Times Admits Key Falsehoods That Drove Last Year’s Coup in Bolivia: Falsehoods Peddled by the U.S., Its Media, and the Times, The Intercept, (June 8, 2020),

[2] Christine Armario, AP Explains: Did a coup force Bolivia’s Evo Morales out?, AP, (Nov. 11, 2019),

[3] Jihan Abdalla, Bolivia’s Morales says ‘coup in progress’ as rivals dispute vote, Aljazeera, (Oct. 23, 2019),

[4] Id.

[5] Id.; Z.C. Dutka, Re-Elected Evo Morales Dedicates Victory to Hugo Chavez, (Oct. 14, 2014),

[6] Dutka, supra note 5.

[7] U.S. Dep’t of State, Bureau of Democracy, H.R. and Lab., Bolivia 2019 Human Rights Report (2020).

[8] U.S. Dep’t of State, Bureau of Democracy, H.R. and Lab., Bolivia 2017 Human Rights Report (2018).

[9] Ironically, the constitution Morales violated was the very document Morales had worked to push through in 2009. Gram Slattery, How Evo Morales lost control of Bolivia, Reuters (Nov. 14, 2019),

[10] Bolivia 2019 Human Rights Report, supra note 7.

[11] Julie Turkewitz, From Bolivia, Lessons for a Successful Election, N.Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2020),

[12] Slattery, supra note 9; Bolivia 2019 Human Rights Report, supra note 7.

[13] Slattery, supra note 9.

[14] Dan Collyns, Bolivia: narrow win for Evo Morales announced in presidential election, Guardian (Oct. 24, 2019),

[15] Jake Johnston & David Rosnik, Observing the Observers: The OAS in the 2019 Bolivian Elections, Ctr. For Econ. & Pol’y Res. (Mar. 10, 2019),

[16] Ernesto Londoño, President Accused of Fraud in Bolivia Election as He Opens Big Vote Lead, N.Y. Times (Oct. 23, 2019),

[17] Johnston & Rosnik, supra note 15.

[18] Id.

[19] Londoño, supra note 16.

[20] Associated Press, Bolivian Court Orders Partial Presidential Revote, N.Y. Times (Oct. 24, 2019),

[21] Bolivia 2019 Human Rights Report, supra note 7.

[22] Johnston & Rosnik, supra note 15.

[23] Press Release, Org. of Am. States, Final Report of the Audit of the Elections in Bolivia: Intentional Manipulation and Serious Irregularities Made it Impossible to Validate the Results (Dec. 4, 2019),

[24] Johnston & Rosnik, supra note 15.

[25] Id.; Londoño, supra note 16.

[26] Slattery, supra note 9.

[27] Id.

[28] César Muñoz Acebes, Justice as a Weapon: Political Persecution in Bolivia, Human Rights Watch (Sep. 11, 2020),; Turkewitz, supra note 11.

[29] Turkewitz, supra note 11.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Johnston & Rosnik, supra note 15.

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