Bolivia is a democracy where credible elections have been held regularly. However, electoral manipulation in 2019 prompted mass protests and violence that led to the resignation of long-time president Evo Morales, with new general elections expected in 2020. Child labor and violence against women are persistent problems, independent and investigative journalists face harassment, and the judiciary is politicized and hampered by corruption.
- Early results of the October presidential election suggested that a runoff between President Evo Morales and the main opposition candidate, former president Carlos Mesa, was likely. Soon after, election officials released an updated vote count showing Morales with an outright victory, triggering mass protests and counterprotests, violent confrontations between civilians, and deadly crackdowns by the police. The unrest, which resulted in the deaths of at least 30 people, ultimately forced President Evo Morales to resign after he lost the support of the police and armed forces.
- After Morales and numerous other top officials resigned, Jeanine Áñez Chavez, a senator and the highest-ranking official in the line of succession who had not stepped down, announced that she had assumed the presidency on an interim basis, and the constitutional court quickly affirmed the move. Áñez indicated that she would only serve until a new election could be held.
- Due to the irregularities in the October elections, the results of the vote for legislative representatives were also considered invalid. The legislature approved a measure in November that permits new legislative elections alongside the new presidential election expected in 2020.
- In December, the Organization of American States (OAS), which had been invited to audit the elections, released a final report concluding that the overall results were not verifiable due to “willful manipulation” abetted by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
Bolivia’s president is both chief of state and head of government, and is directly elected to a five-year term. In the 2014 general elections, Evo Morales of the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) was reelected president with 61 percent of the vote, and an OAS election observation mission said the poll’s result reflected the will of the people. A 2017 Constitutional Tribunal ruling, confirmed by the TSE in December 2018, permit Morales to run for a fourth term; the controversial rulings followed the failure of a 2016 referendum on extending term limits.
Early results of the October 2019 presidential election suggested that a runoff between Morales and the main opposition candidate, former president Carlos Mesa, was likely. Soon after, election officials released an updated vote count showing Morales with an outright victory, prompting mass demonstrations. In the vote’s immediate aftermath, an OAS electoral observation mission released sharp criticism of the tally that showed Morales with an outright victory, saying it contradicted independent counts and that a runoff round should go forward. Morales maintained that his victory was legitimate, but also invited the OAS to audit the election, and it sent a delegation of experts to do so.
As protests and counterprotests—and accompanying violence—intensified, Morales, vice president Álvaro García Linera, and a host of other top officials resigned in November, after Morales lost the support of the military and police force. Two days later, Jeanine Áñez Chavez, a senior senator and the highest-ranking official in the line of succession who had not yet resigned, announced that she had stepped into the presidency on an interim basis, and the constitutional court quickly affirmed the move. Áñez indicated that she would only serve until a new election could be held.
The OAS mission’s final report, issued in December, said it had found “overwhelming evidence” of “a series of intentional operations aimed at altering the will expressed at the polls,” including falsification of the signatures of poll officials, electronic results being redirected to hidden servers and manipulated, and complicity of electoral officials. At year’s end, new elections were expected in 2020.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the presidential election was tainted by attempted manipulation, and a series of resignations resulted in a senator serving as interim president pending a repeat election.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The Plurinational Legislative Assembly (ALP) consists of a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and a 36-member Senate. Legislative terms are five years.
The 2014 legislative elections were generally free and fair. However, due to the irregularities in the 2019 general election, the results of the vote for legislative representatives were considered invalid and the ALP approved a law in November to that permits new legislative elections alongside the new presidential election expected in 2020.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||1.001 4.004|
For years, Bolivian politics were characterized by efforts by Morales’ MAS to abolish presidential term limits. In 2015, the legislature voted to call for a referendum to amend the constitution to allow Morales to run for a third consecutive term under the 2009 constitution—effectively allowing him to run for a fourth term; voters rejected the change in 2016. In 2017, MAS lawmakers activated a procedure consulting the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (or TCP, whose justices were selected by the MAS-dominated legislature) to declare the articles banning reelection unconstitutional. In 2017, the court assented, effectively overturning the results of the previous year’s referendum and clearing the way for Morales’s run for a fourth term in 2019.
The final report of the OAS on the 2019 elections described extensive evidence that the elections’ overall results were not verifiable, due to “willful manipulation” abetted by a biased TSE. In particular, the report excoriated TSE members for allowing electronic voting results to be diverted to shadowy external servers, “destroying all trust in the electoral process” and “making data manipulation and tally sheet forgery possible.” A new independent TSE was appointed in December, increasing the likelihood of free and fair elections in 2020.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to evidence election officials played a key role in manipulating the results of the presidential election.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||3.003 4.004|
Citizens have the right to organize political parties. MAS has dominated politics since Morales’s election to the presidency in 2005, drawing support from social movements, trade unions, and civil society actors. Morales’s maneuvers to achieve a reelection bid were a core issue in the rancorous 2019 campaign period. The most prominent opposition party, Comunidad Ciudadana (Citizen Community) attracted those who opposed his persistent efforts to extend his term.
In September 2018, the MAS-dominated ALP passed the Political Organizations Law, which contains a provision requiring intraparty primaries; opposition leaders said the provision hampers the ability of opposition parties to form coalitions to challenge the MAS by mandating that coalitions be formalized months before the intraparty primaries are held. In late 2018 and 2019, that provision became a topic of contention between the ALP and the TSE, leading to the resignation of TSE officials in 2018 and 2019.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||2.002 4.004|
There are no formal institutional barriers that prevent opposition parties from participating in elections. However, the overwhelming dominance of the MAS, aided by its use of public resources to back its campaigns, has made it difficult for opposition parties to gain power through elections. In the 2019 presidential election, the manipulation of results prevented a runoff between Morales and Mesa, the second-place candidate.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2.002 4.004|
People are generally free to make political decisions without undue influence from the military, foreign powers, or other influential groups. However, opposition members have claimed that under Morales, public employees have been coerced by their employers to attend pro-government rallies.
In the run-up to the 2019 elections, some ruling-party supporters and members declared that they would not allow opposition candidates to campaign in territorial jurisdictions controlled by organizations aligned with the MAS. Later, as postelection protests grew, Morales supporters (with Morales’s approval) blockaded neighborhoods, roads, and other facilities in order to prevent the opposition from mobilizing. In one instance, an opposition leader who had planned to lead a protest march in La Paz was prevented by protesters and airport officials from leaving the La Paz airport upon arrival. He was ultimately unable to travel beyond the airport by land, and flew back to Santa Cruz.
Those protesting against Morales organized road blockades in some cities, to which sympathizers of the MAS reacted by trying to forcefully break them, or with counter blockades aimed at limiting the food supply to the cities.
Opposition supporters also carried out some acts of intimidation. The mayor of Vinto, a MAS member, was attacked by antigovernment protesters and forced to march through the streets, and to sign a hastily prepared resignation letter. Supporters of Morales and government officials also experienced violence, including the burning of houses of MAS legislators and mayors and even the looting of Morales’s house in Cochabamba.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because nonstate actors blockaded neighborhoods and committed acts of violence in order to prevent political mobilization during the year’s crisis.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution recognizes 36 indigenous nationalities within a plurinational state, and formalizes political autonomy in indigenous territories. Adult citizens enjoy universal and equal suffrage. Although they are well represented in government, the interests of indigenous groups are often overlooked by politicians.
Formally, Bolivia has progressive legislation that guarantees equal political representation for women and seeks to protect them from political violence. While women are well-represented in politics, sexism and patriarchal attitudes undermines their work, particularly at local levels.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
Elected officials are free to set and implement government policy without undue interference from nonstate actors. However, opposition members charge that years of a MAS majority in the legislature, combined with Morales’s powerful presidency, has allowed for strong executive influence on legislative processes.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Anticorruption laws are poorly enforced, and corruption affects a range of government entities and economic sectors, including law enforcement bodies and extractive industries. Public procurement processes are frequently compromised by bribery.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
Bolivia has no law guaranteeing access to public information. Elected officials by law must make asset declarations, but these are unavailable to the public.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
While the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, in practice, journalists encounter harassment in connection with critical or investigative reporting. Harassment of critical media outlets has at times come from MAS government officials, who have characterized journalists as liars and participants in an international conspiracy against Morales. Media outlets with editorial positions that were perceived as hostile by the Morales administration have been denied access to public advertising contracts. In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the TSE banned the publication of an opinion poll carried out by a public university in collaboration with a research foundation and several media groups. The TSE claimed that the poll violated technical and source-of-funding criteria established in the electoral legislation. However, civil society organizations claimed that the poll was banned because it suggested that the ruling party was losing support. The TSE warned that outlets could be sanctioned for publishing the poll, and most declined to do so.
After the 2019 elections, media outlets and journalists faced physical attacks from both Morales and opposition supporters, as well as attacks by security forces. After Morales resigned, journalists and media outlets who criticized the interim government faced harassment. In November, the new communications minister, Roxana Lizárraga, threatened critical journalists with deportation and sedition charges.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and generally upheld in practice. The 2009 constitution ended the Roman Catholic Church’s official status, and created a secular state.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is legally guaranteed and upheld in practice.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Private discussion is robust and generally free from interference or surveillance.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
Bolivian law protects the right to peaceful assembly. However, many past protests have been marred by clashes between demonstrators and police, as well as clashes between protesters and counterprotesters around divisive issues.
In 2019, freedom of assembly deteriorated during the violent protests and counterprotests that surrounded the election and Morales’ resignation. When sympathizers of Morales protested in the cities of Cochabamba and El Alto in November, the interim government replacing his administration deployed security forces to forcibly disperse them. In Cochabamba, peasants attempted to enter the city to organize a rally, but their protest turned violent and nine people died in a confrontation with the army and police. Protesters in El Alto blocked the road to a gas storage facility that held the entire fuel supply for La Paz. When a combined army and police operation tried to disperse them, the protesters attempted to invade the facility using explosives, and about 10 protesters died in resulting clashes with security forces. These events were deemed massacres in a preliminary report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The unrest resulted in the deaths of at least 30 people, and hundreds of injuries.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to violence that accompanied postelection protests.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate, but they are subject to some legal restrictions. In 2016, the TCP dismissed a petition arguing that two statutes in the country’s NGO law gave the government license to dissolve NGOs. Government officials have at times smeared rights groups as antigovernment conspirators.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Labor and peasant unions are an active force wielding significant political influence.
The country’s official labor code is inconsistent with Bolivian law; for example, it prohibits public sector unions, yet many public workers are able to legally unionize. A National Labor Court hears cases of antiunion discrimination, but tends to hand down verdicts slowly, and penalties for antiunion discrimination are not consistently applied.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||1.001 4.004|
Bolivia stands as the sole country that appoints justices via popular elections. However, judges on the Supreme Court, the TCP, and other entities are first nominated through a two-thirds vote in the legislature. This allowed the MAS to dominate the candidate selection process, producing a lenient judiciary. The popular election of judges has politicized and factionalized appointments, creating opportunities for corruption. In addition to its politicization, the judiciary remains overburdened and beset by corruption.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
Many people have difficulty accessing the justice system because they lack resources to travel to courts and other relevant offices, and also because services, where provided, are often insufficient and inefficient. In criminal matters, people accused of committing crimes can go years before they have a formal trial. Police are poorly paid and receive inadequate training, and corruption within the police force remains a problem.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
Morales supporters and opponents clashed violently in several cities following the 2019 elections and Morales’s resignation. Both sympathizers and detractors of Morales had access to explosives, including dynamite, rocket launchers, and Molotov cocktails, and used them against each other and the security forces. Morales opponents were reportedly shot at in in the localities of Montero and Vila. The houses of journalists and activists who had been critical of Morales were burnt, as were a number of public buses in La Paz. By year’s end, a political dialogue backed by the European Union (EU), United Nations, and Episcopal Conference, among others, opened, and violence receded before reaching the point of civil war or insurgency.
Impunity for crimes has prompted some to engage in vigilante justice against alleged criminals. Assaults in prisons continue to pose a significant problem.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
The 2010 antiracism law contains measures to combat discrimination and impose criminal penalties for discriminatory acts. However, racism and associated discrimination is common in the country, especially against indigenous groups.
Bolivia has laws in place that prohibit discrimination against LGBT+ people. However, these laws are rarely enforced, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people experience widespread societal discrimination. Chi Hyun Chung, a Presbyterian minister who considers homosexuality to be an illness requiring psychiatric treatment, ran for president in 2019 and made an open anti-LGBT+ rights agenda part of his platform; he came in third in the October elections.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
There are no formal limits on people’s ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education, but choices can be limited by socioeconomic difficulties. Roads are occasionally blockaded as part of protest actions, impeding free movement.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
Women enjoy the same formal rights to property ownership as men but discrimination is common, leading to disparities in property ownership and access to resources.
The rights of indigenous people to prior consultation in cases of natural resource extraction and land development are not fully upheld by law or in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution reserves marriage as a bond between a man and a woman, and makes no provision for same-sex civil unions.
Domestic violence, which mainly affects women, is a serious problem, and laws criminalizing violence against women are not well enforced. Many women lack access to birth control and reproductive health care.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Bolivia is a source country for the trafficking of men, women, and children for forced labor and prostitution, and the country faced increased international criticism over permissive legislation regarding child labor in 2018: in December of that year, Morales signed a measure to change the minimum working age to 14 years old.
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Global Freedom Score66 100 partly free