Georgia State University

Constitutional Change Leads to Democratic Erosion in Bolivia by Emma Nelson @ Georgia State University

Even though it would seem that when a country analyzes and rewrites parts of their constitution it would be a step forward, is this actually the case? Thomas Jefferson once said that a constitution should be rewritten by the people every nineteen years in order for each generation to govern themselves. However, what happens when it is the government making these changes at their own discretion and benefit and even against the wishes of the people? Abusing the democratic institutions that are in place in a country is a clear pathway to democratic erosion. Bolivia is a prime example of this relationship and pathway between the abuse of democratic institutions, especially with using the constitution, and democratic erosion.

Bolivia consists of a very large population of indigenous people, many of whom were being persecuted or forgotten about by the Bolivian government. However, then Evo Morales came into the picture. He won the presidency in 2006 and became one of the first presidents from the indigenous majority. He ran on the premise that, with him as president, more of Bolivia would finally be represented by their government. There would finally be someone who would enact programs to help protect their land, reduce poverty and corruption, and give less power to the wealthy, or so the people hoped. One of the first things on his agenda in order to do all of this was several constitutional reformations. In 2009 the new constitution was put in place and it greatly increased the rights of the indigenous people and, most importantly to Morales, allowed the president to serve for two consecutive terms instead of just one. His party also took over the necessary two-thirds control of the congress. Since his first election was before the constitutional referendum he was allowed to run for two more terms after his first, easily winning the majority of the votes each time.

However, around a year into his third term the economy started to decline and he was involved in an alleged corruption scandal which slightly hurt his approval with the people. During this Morales proposed a new referendum for a change in the constitution that would allow him to run for yet another term. However, with his decreased popularity, just enough Bolivians voted against the referendum for him to lose by a slight margin. This is where tension started to arise. Regardless of this clear disapproval and constitution in place that should not have allowed it to happen, his party announced that he would be running again in 2019 no matter what. With his party in control of most all of the government and very little opposition from the people so far, there will not be much to stand in his way.

This constant attempt to reform the constitution so the party in power can stay in power is a clear sign of democratic erosion. In How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, Huq and Ginsberg write explicitly on this issue and state that formal constitutional changes are one of the most obvious pathways to backsliding in a democracy. They also say “Perhaps the most straightforward use of constitutional amendments for antidemocratic ends concerns the alteration of term limits.” This constant ability to change the constitution shows the instability surrounding a country’s governing documents. This allows leaders to go about disregarding the democratic institutions in place by using the very processes that are set forth in them. Since Morales’ party also controls the congress there is minimal checks in place that would go against his decisions. This breakdown of a system of checks and balances when it comes to amending the constitution will also contribute to the erosion. It is unsettling if the leader of a country is so concerned with the incessant need to be in power that nothing else is dealt with. It can also lead to animosity when the people of a country start to realize that their leader has complete contempt for what they want. If this behavior continues it could lead to not only erosion but a total breakdown. This complete breakdown has been seen in Venezuela where in 2009 term limits were abolished all together by Hugo Chávez. With this ability to stay in office forever it has created an incentive to make sure people keep voting for him, even if that means publicly threatening his people to do so. Bolivians should heed this warning.

In order for this to not happen, leaders need to have more respect for the democratic institutions in place as well as the people they are governing. While Evo Morales’ approval is still decent and the economy is still in a better condition than before, his disregard for the Bolivian constitution will have long term eroding effects. If leaders do not respect the democratic institutions on their own then there needs to be deeper rooted processes in place that can step in and check these leaders when necessary in order to prevent further breakdown. If these processes do not do their job, it not only shows a lack of restraint on the executive’s authority but people will also start to grow resentful towards their government and this never has a positive outcome in the long run.


“*Photo by Joel Alvarez, “Evo Morales Year 2 Bolivia” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.”

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