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 and subnational elections held in 2021 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 highly politicized and hampered by corruption.
- Subnational elections held in March and April were competitive and credible, and polling took place peacefully. Although the Movement for Socialism (MAS) remained the largest party in the country, it lost mayoral races in the largest cities and most of the country’s gubernatorial elections.
- In March, former interim president Jeanine Áñez was detained on numerous charges, including terrorism and sedition; several members of her cabinet were also indicted. At year’s end, Áñez had not received a trial date and was still being held in preventive detention.
- The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)—commissioned through an agreement between the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Bolivian government to investigate human rights violations between September and December 2019—released its final report in August. The report found that numerous human rights violations were committed during the 2019 political unrest, including by both the Áñez administration and state security forces.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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.
In November 2019, as protests, counterprotests, and accompanying violence intensified in the weeks following the October poll, Morales, vice president Álvaro García Linera, and the heads of the Senate and the lower chamber resigned, 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 endorsed by the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) 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 2020.
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 until October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 deemed the poll credible and fair, and competing parties and civil society stakeholders accepted the results.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
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 in November 2019, the ALP unanimously passed a law calling for new legislative elections to be held in October 2020. In those elections, 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, and the new We Believe (Creemos) alliance 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?
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. However, in 2020 the methodology and credibility of the OAS report was disputed by a wide range of independent analysts. After Morales’s resignation in November 2019, the parliament agreed on a transparent formula to reconstitute an independent TSE in December of that year.
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.
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 the TCP, a body the lawmakers themselves had appointed, despite voters rejecting this measure by referendum in 2016. In June 2021, the IACHR found that—despite TCP claims that presidential term limitations infringe upon the political rights of former presidents seeking reelection and of their supporters—such term limitations do not violate rights protected by the American Convention on Human Rights.
|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?
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.
In January 2020, Luis Fernando Camacho—the regional leader from Santa Cruz who led the mass protests against Morales in 2019—founded the Creemos alliance. Creemos quickly became the leading party in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest region.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
There are no formal institutional barriers that prevent opposition parties from participating in elections. Between 2005 and 2019, 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. MAS candidates achieved sweeping victories in the local elections held in March 2021, but lost the mayoral races in Bolivia’s largest cities, and in most gubernatorial races.
In the 2019 presidential election, the OAS observer mission claimed that the results of the vote were manipulated by the TSE in order to prevent a runoff between Morales and Mesa, the second-place candidate. However, in 2020, independent researchers found that methodological errors significantly affected the OAS’s results; when the errors were corrected, the researchers found no evidence of electoral fraud. Elections held in 2020 were generally considered to be free and fair.
|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?
People are generally free to make political decisions without undue influence from the military, foreign powers, or other influential groups. Although several violent confrontations occurred between supporters of competing parties in the run-up to the 2020 election, 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 and were mostly absent in 2021. However, tensions remained high throughout the year, leading to concern about potential confrontation between MAS supporters and supporters of the regionalist movement led by Camacho during political demonstrations in Santa Cruz.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Adult citizens enjoy universal and equal suffrage.
The constitution recognizes 36 Indigenous nationalities within a plurinational state, and formalizes political autonomy in Indigenous territories. Indigenous groups are well represented in government, and seven seats are reserved for Indigenous peoples in the Chamber of Deputies. However, 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, holding 46 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and nearly 56 percent of those in the Senate, 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?
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 has opened the space for strong executive influence on legislative processes, closing the possibility of debating policy at the legislative level.
Historically, powerful social movements have been able to exert pressure on the ALP to prevent the adoption of policies seen as detrimental to their interests. In September and October 2021, numerous civic movements and economic interest groups mobilized to protest against a bill the ALP had passed in August to “fight the legitimization of illicit profits.” The bill was repealed in November, and MAS lawmakers claimed that the leaders of the civic committees had used violence and misinformation to interfere with the MAS majority government and achieve their own political goals.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
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?
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?
While the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, in practice, journalists encounter harassment in connection with critical or investigative reporting. Media outlets critical of the government faced harassment from administration officials during the Morales and Áñez presidencies. Similar harassment continued in 2021 under the Arce administration, which has characterized journalists as liars and independent media outlets as political actors.
Bolivia’s National Press Association (ANP) documented numerous cases of violence against journalists in 2021. In October, several journalists were assaulted and briefly held captive by a group of armed men while reporting on a land dispute in Santa Cruz; the attack led several international press organizations to call on the Bolivian government to establish security mechanisms to protect members of the media.
In August, the ALP passed a draft law on illicit proceeds that contained an article that press freedom organizations feared would jeopardize existing confidentiality protections legally guaranteed for journalistic sources. The law was vetoed in November.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
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?
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?
Private discussion is robust and generally free from interference or surveillance.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
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.
Widespread protests during the 2019 elections were characterized by high levels of violence among protesters, counterprotesters, and security forces. A report issued in August 2021 by the GIEI, commissioned through an agreement between the IACHR and the Bolivian government, found that during the protests that led to Morales’s resignation, his administration facilitated the transport of its supporters and provided them with materials and weapons to use against the opposition, causing grave human rights violations.
Additional security forces were deployed by the interim government after Morales’s resignation 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 hundreds of injuries and the deaths of at least 30 people. The IACHR and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that police had committed serious human rights violations.
In August and September 2021, Indigenous activists from the lowlands marched to Santa Cruz to protest against MAS policies of land distribution affecting Indigenous territory, and to present a list of related demands to the government; the protesters’ demands were not met before they left Santa Cruz at the end of the year. Though several protests occurred in 2020 and 2021, including antigovernment demonstrations, they were not marred by the high levels of violence seen in previous years.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate but are subject to some legal restrictions. In 2016, the 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?
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?
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 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. An arrest warrant for Morales, issued in December 2019, was annulled following the MAS victory in the October 2020 elections. 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 election-related violence in 2019. Áñez was arrested on multiple charges in March 2021, including conspiracy, sedition, and terrorism; she remained in prison at year’s end. The Arce administration has also accused several opposition leaders elected in the March 2021 local elections, including Camacho, of terrorism, conspiracy, and sedition.
The August 2021 GIEI report on the 2019 political crisis found that a lack of independence, transparency, and objectivity in the exercise of criminal prosecutions—often used against political opponents—constitutes a structural and endemic problem of the Bolivian judiciary.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
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; interim president Áñez, who was arrested in March 2021, remained in preventive detention and had not received a trial date at year’s end. Police are poorly paid and receive inadequate training, and corruption within the police force remains a problem.
In February 2021, the ALP approved a presidential decree issuing an amnesty for those prosecuted by the Áñez government for crimes related to the 2019 political unrest. Human rights groups have criticized the amnesty, claiming that it “appears designed to favor” MAS supporters and will lead to impunity for serious crimes committed during the 2019 crisis.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
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 by unidentified persons in the localities of Montero and Vila 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. After the installation of the interim government, the houses of MAS supporters and former officials were also burnt. Though the country remains polarized, a political dialogue backed by the EU, the UN, and the Episcopal Conference, among others, allowed the violence to decrease before reaching the point of civil war or insurgency.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
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 ran for president in 2019 and 2020, included 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?
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?
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?
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 later officially approved.
Gender-based violence is a serious problem, and laws criminalizing violence against women are not well enforced. More than 100 femicides took place in Bolivia in 2021. In August, the GIEI reported that numerous cases of sexual and gender-based violence had occurred during the 2019 political crisis, and recommended that the government make the investigation of such crimes a priority. Many women lack access to birth control and reproductive health care.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Bolivia is a source country for the trafficking of men, women, and children for forced labor and prostitution, and the country faced 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