Bolivia is a democracy where credible elections have been held regularly. While mass protests and violence erupted after the disputed 2019 elections, new general elections held in 2020 were credible and fair, and stakeholders accepted the results. Child labor and violence against women are persistent problems, independent and investigative journalists face harassment, and the judiciary is politicized and hampered by corruption.
- Repeat general elections held in October were competitive and credible, and polling took place peacefully. The Movement for Socialism (MAS) won a majority in the legislature and its candidate, Luis Arce, won the presidency with 55 percent of the vote. The elections had been delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic; over 158,000 people tested positive for the coronavirus during the year, according to data the government provided to the World Health Organization (WHO).
- In September, the interim government charged former president Evo Morales with terrorism, after having already prosecuted hundreds of individuals associated with his administration. The next month, the MAS-dominated legislature approved the indictment of 11 ministers from the interim government, and recommended interim president Áñez be prosecuted for her alleged role in encouraging violence at protests in 2019. Rights groups and others expressed concern that the prosecutions were a continuation of Bolivian authorities’ long-problematic use of the justice system to persecute political opponents.
- In July, the Second Constitutional Chamber of the La Paz Department Tribunal overturned a decision of the civil registry office that had denied a same-sex couple registration of their civil union. The couple’s union was officially approved in December.
- In May, Health Minister Marcelo Navajas was arrested for corruption related to the purchase of ventilators to aid people suffering from severe COVID-19 symptoms. He allegedly authorized payments that totaled approximately $4.7 million, over $27,000 for each unit, which was more than double what was stipulated in the contract.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Bolivia’s president is both chief of state and head of government, and is directly elected to a five-year term. The presidential election in October 2020 took place after the results of the 2019 election was annulled. Early results of the October 2019 presidential election suggested that a runoff between incumbent Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) and the main opposition candidate, former president Carlos Mesa of the Comunidad Ciudadana (Citizen Community) party, was likely. Soon after, election officials released an updated vote count showing Morales with an outright victory, prompting mass demonstrations. An Organization of American States (OAS) electoral observation mission criticized the tally that showed Morales with an outright victory, saying it contradicted independent counts and that a runoff round should go forward—though the credibility of this criticism has since been disputed by some independent analysts. 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, counterprotests, and accompanying violence intensified in the weeks following the 2019 poll, Morales, vice president Álvaro García Linera, and the heads of the Senate and the lower chamber resigned in November, after Morales lost the support of the military and police forces. Days later, Jeanine Áñez Chavez, a senior senator and the highest-ranking official in the line of succession who had not yet resigned, was approved by the Constitutional Court to assume the presidency on an interim basis. Áñez indicated that she would only serve until a new election could be held, though in January 2020, she announced her candidacy for president in the next election. She eventually withdrew from the race in September in order to unify the MAS-opposition.
An agreement between the interim government and the parliament, mediated by the United Nations, the European Union (EU), and the Catholic Church, established a new election date and a new Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), whose actions were widely considered independent and free from undue political influence. The election was supposed to be held in May 2020; however it was postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, first to September, and then to October. In August, MAS supporters organized roadblocks for two weeks to protest the second delay of the election.
The results of the October 2020 poll showed a clear victory for MAS candidate Luis Arce, who won over 55 percent of the vote, precluding the need for a runoff. Former president Mesa won 28 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was recorded at 84 percent. Multiple independent observer missions, including one from the OAS, deemed the poll credible and fair, and competing parties and civil society stakeholders accepted the results.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the presidential election was organized and administered impartially, and its results were recognized by all competing parties and the international community.
|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.
Due to allegations of irregularities in the 2019 general elections, the results of the vote for legislative representatives were considered invalid, and the ALP passed a law in November 2019 calling for new legislative elections alongside the October 2020 presidential election. In October, the MAS won 75 of the 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 21 seats in the Senate. The Citizen Community party secured 39 seats in the lower house and 11 seats in the upper house. The Creemos party won 16 and 4 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||2.002 4.004|
The final report of the OAS on the 2019 elections claimed 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.” However, in 2020 the methodology and credibility of the OAS report was disputed by the Washington Post, New York Times, and other independent analysts. After Morales’s resignation in November 2019, the parliament agreed on a transparent formula to reconstitute an independent TSE in December.
In the 2020 elections, the TSE’s actions were widely considered independent and free from undue political influence. Though the day of the vote was postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic, the body nevertheless administered a safe vote with high turnout, successfully implementing necessary public health measures such as social distancing and separate timeslots for voting.
For years, Bolivian politics were characterized by MAS efforts to abolish presidential term limits. In 2017, MAS lawmakers overturned the articles in the constitution setting presidential term limits by consulting a constitutional tribunal the lawmakers themselves had appointed, despite voters rejecting this measure by referendum in 2016.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the newly appointed Supreme Electoral Tribunal provided more independent and transparent oversight of the presidential election, despite a number of weaknesses in the legal framework.
|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, Citizen Community, attracted individuals who opposed his persistent efforts to extend his term. Opposition leaders have criticized the 2018 Political Organizations Law, which contains a provision requiring intraparty primaries.
In the 2020 election, a new political party called Creemos emerged, headed by the regional leader from Santa Cruz, Luis Fernando Camacho, who organized a wave of protests that led to Morales’s resignation. Creemos is the leading party in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest region, and received 16 percent of the vote in the presidential election.
|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, made it difficult for opposition parties to gain power through elections. Further, some electoral rules and regulations endanger the maintenance of a level political playing field and hinder the opposition’s ability to realistically challenge the MAS. The 2018 Political Organizations Law also mandates that coalitions be finalized months before their required intraparty primaries are held, which obstructs the formation of a realistic opposition force.
Interim president Áñez initially announced in January 2020 her candidacy for president, but, after a series of scandals including alleged abuse of administrative resources, withdrew from the race in September in order to unite the MAS-opposition.
In the 2019 presidential election, the OAS observer mission claimed that the results of the vote were manipulated so as to prevent a runoff between Morales and Mesa, the second-place candidate. However, the Washington Post, New York Times, and other independent analysts later disputed these allegations.
|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. Over the course of Morales’s tenure, however, public employees were coerced by their employers to attend progovernment rallies.
Several violent confrontations occurred between supporters of competing parties in the run-up to the 2020 election. However, leaders of all parties called for their supporters to allow everyone to campaign freely and peacefully in each region. The interventions, protests, roadblocks, and violence that preceded and followed the 2019 elections were not as severe in 2020.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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, elected to 46 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and nearly 56 percent of those in the Senate in 2020, sexism and patriarchal attitudes undermine 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 the MAS majority in the legislature, combined with Morales’s powerful presidency, has opened the space for strong executive influence on legislative processes.
During 2020, the parliament, dominated by the MAS, clashed consistently with interim president Áñez. Áñez, who initially recognized that her only mandate as the unelected interim president was to administer new elections, attempted to implement policies that reversed Morales administration decisions and enact new legislation. Tensions between the executive and the legislative branches of government impeded the passage and implementation of legislation throughout the year.
|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.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, former minister of health Marcelo Navajas was fired and later arrested on suspicion of corruption after intentionally overpaying for artificial ventilators. The government paid $4.7 million to a Spanish company to purchase 179 ventilators, each costing $27,683. The manufacturer offered the ventilators for between $10,312 and $11,941 per unit, and stipulated less than half of $4.7 million in total in the contract.
|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. This harassment continued under interim president Áñez’s administration. Media outlets with editorial positions that were perceived as hostile under the Morales administration were denied access to public advertising contracts. Bolivia’s National Press Association documented 87 instances of physical attacks against journalists in 2019, mostly from both Morales and opposition supporters, 14 incidents of violence at the premises of media outlets, and 16 cases of authorities threatening and harassing members of the press. These attacks continued in 2020, though mostly by demonstrators.
In March 2020, the interim government issued a decree that provided for the criminal prosecution of journalists and members of the general public who published what authorities deemed to be misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s policies to address it. Facing pressure from civil society organizations and the international community, the government withdrew that provision of the decree in May.
|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?||3.003 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 physical confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters around divisive issues.
In 2019, after Morales’s resignation, the interim government deployed security forces to disperse protesting Morales sympathizers, who at times also fought with opposition supporters. The use of force by authorities during the 2019 postelectoral unrest resulted in the deaths of at least 30 people, and hundreds of injuries. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that police had committed serious human rights violations.
In August 2020, after the presidential election was delayed a second time, nearly 150,000 protesters blockaded streets and marched in numerous cities, seeking the resignation of interim president Áñez. Health officials said these roadblocks prevented crucial medical supplies from reaching parts of the country, significantly delaying the Red Cross’s and other medical convoys, likely resulting in the deaths of approximately 30 people who had COVID-19. Unlike in 2019, there were no reports of major incidents of overt violence at the 2020 protests.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because demonstrations during the year generally featured less violence and police interference than in 2019, when clashes between protesters and security forces resulted in dozens of deaths.
|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 are subject to some legal restrictions. In 2016, the country’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) dismissed a petition arguing that two statutes in the country’s NGO laws gave the government license to dissolve NGOs. Government officials from all political affiliations 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 sector 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. For years, 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 further opportunities for corruption. In addition to its politicization, the judiciary remains overburdened and beset by corruption.
The use of the judiciary to prosecute opposition leaders was a common practice during the Morales administration and continued under interim president Áñez’s government, which pressured prosecutors to pursue criminal cases against hundreds of individuals associated with the Morales administration. In September 2020, the government accused Morales himself of terrorism and issued a warrant for his arrest, though it was eventually annulled in court. In October 2020, the outgoing legislature approved the indictment of 11 ministers from the interim government, and recommended that interim president Áñez be prosecuted for her role in worsening the violence at protests in 2019, alleging that she and other ministers had committed “genocide and other offenses.”
|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 fought violently in several cities following the 2019 elections and Morales’s resignation. Both sympathizers and detractors of Morales had access to explosives, including dynamite, homemade rocket launchers, and Molotov cocktails, and used them against each other and the security forces. Morales opponents were reportedly shot at 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 EU, the UN, and the Episcopal Conference, among others, opened, and violence receded before reaching the point of civil war or insurgency.
|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 LGBT+ 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 2020, with an anti-LGBT+ rights agenda as part of his platform; he came in third in 2019 but lost most of his support in 2020.
|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. However, in July 2020, the Second Constitutional Chamber of the La Paz Department Tribunal overturned a decision of the civil registry office denying a same-sex couple registration of their civil union, which was officially approved in December.
Gender-based violence is a serious problem, and laws criminalizing violence against women are not well enforced. Cases of femicide and violence against women increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 14,464 cases recorded by the government Special Force to Combat Violence (FELCV) between January and August 2020. 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, when the country changed the minimum working age to 14 years old.
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Global Freedom Score66 100 partly free