Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
There’s much we still need to know about what has unfolded in Bolivia, but one thing is clear: Evo Morales, who on Sunday resigned the presidency under overwhelming pressure – some call it a coup, others say it’s a path to restoring democracy - could have left office at the end of almost 14 years in power and remained a beloved figure for most Bolivians. Instead, he refused to accept the democratic limits on his power.
Morales tried to stay in office against his people’s will. Now his legacy is in question, as is the future of Bolivia.
The story of Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, is one of first hope and optimism, which was then overpowered by ego and disillusionment.
And it is a reminder that Latin Americans are not looking for saviors. The age of caudillos and redeemers is over. They want government for everyone, and results-oriented democracy.
Morales became president in 2006, at the height of the so-called pink tide, when leftist presidents were winning elections across the region. He vowed to undo centuries of exploitation, racism and inequality, and to a large extent he kept his word. His policies slashed poverty and brought economic growth. But even his strongest supporters gradually grew concerned over his excessive attachment to power.
Under his direction, Bolivia enacted a new constitution in 2009, limiting presidents to two consecutive terms. He was elected again in 2009, and won a third time in 2014, claiming his first term under the old constitution didn’t count. He also promised he would not seek another term, a promise he would break this year.
He had never lost an election, and was growing steadily more powerful, his self-regard expanding in tandem. His Movement For Socialism (MAS) had gained control of all the branches of government and much of the media.
Some Bolivians started looking askance when the president built a gleaming new 29-story presidential palace in the impoverished capital, and then a multimillion-dollar museum honoring, well, himself.
After 10 years in office, many wondered if their president would ever agree to leave power. They had seen democracy destroyed in Venezuela and Nicaragua. The MAS supermajority in Congress, beholden to the president, started pushing to allow him another term. An indigenous Aymara legislator poignantly protested, wearing a cardboard crown in the National Assembly and campaigning with the sarcastic slogan, “I also want to be king.”
Morales, who insists he is a man of the people, decided to put the question to voters, sure they would support him. But in a 2016 referendum, they narrowly voted “No” to a fourth term.
The president refused to take no for an answer. He went to the constitutional court, also considered friendly to the president, which offered a novel argument that could potentially keep Morales in office forever, claiming term limits are a human rights violation.
But Morales still had to win the election. The rules dictated that if he didn’t win an outright majority, he needed 10% more votes than the runner-up, or else he would face a runoff. After the polls closed last month, the vote count was showing Morales in first place, but not far enough to avoid a runoff that he would very likely lose.
Suddenly the counting stopped. For 24 hours no one knew what was happening. When results restarted, he quickly secured the necessary margin and declared victory.
The streets erupted amid cries of fraud. International observers agreed. The former foreign minister of Costa Rica, Manuel Gonzales, leading an observer mission of the Organization of American States (OAS), called it an “inexplicable change in trend.” The European Union, United Nations, the US and other countries backed the OAS.
As massive protests roiled the country, preliminary results of an OAS audit found “manipulations to the computer systems” and vote totals in places that exceeded the number of registered voters. It was, the OAS said, “overwhelming” evidence that the vote was not credible.
At that point, Morales agreed to another election, but his loss of trust was irreparable.
In a perfect situation, Bolivia would have a fuller investigation and a new election with credible results. Instead, Morales has been forced from power by the actions of the military. He and his backers are emphatic that this was a coup. His critics claim his removal saves Bolivian democracy. The coming days will show whether the country can return to peace and a democratic path, or if darker days lie ahead.
Bolivia’s and Morales’ saga is a reminder to the rest of Latin America – and, indeed, the world – that despite the all-too-visible flaws in democracy, it remains the system that most people prefer. Even a president who has produced good results for his country can throw it all away by ignoring that fact. Few people anymore want an all-powerful ruler. Nobody, no matter how charismatic, skilled or even beloved, gets to keep power forever.