Bolivia’s Divided Left Is at Risk of Losing Power

A clumsy, short-lived coup last month couldn’t bring Bolivia’s discredited conservative forces back to power. But the divide between Luis Arce and Evo Morales over the legacy of the Movement for Socialism could give those forces a bigger opening.

Bolivian president Luis Arce delivers a press conference following a failed coup attempt, June 27. (Marcelo Perez del Carpio / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On Thursday, June 26, troops occupied Plaza Murillo in La Paz, where the Bolivian government headquarters is located. Commander Juan José Zúñiga, head of the army, invaded the plaza with a hundred soldiers and a group of armored vehicles, breaking down the door of the Palacio Quemado, where President Luis Arce and his ministers tried to resist by blocking the entrances with furniture.

Although Zúñiga’s would-be coup soon ended in defeat, it meant that the threat of military rebellions has returned to Latin America only a year and a half after Jair Bolsonaro’s followers attempted to seize power by force in Brazil. This situation is not new in Bolivia, the country that has experienced the largest number of coups since 1945.

The last one was in 2019, when president Evo Morales was ousted by a civic-military insurrection and forced into exile after thirteen years of relative political stability under the governments of the Movement for Socialism (MAS). It is necessary to go back to that moment to understand what happened on June 26 and what effects it may have for the Bolivian left, which remains in power but is acutely divided and more fragile than at any time since Morales first became president.

A Confusing Coup

Several theories have circulated about the coup attempt, but it appears to have been the individual response of Commander Zúñiga to his dismissal by Arce, a decision made after the general threatened former president Morales on television. Although Arce and Morales, formerly allies, are now openly at odds with one another, the current president decided to remove Zúñiga from his position after he stated on television that he would arrest Morales if he attempted to run for office again. This flagrantly violated the prohibition against military involvement in politics.

Arce dismissed Zúñiga but did not immediately appoint a replacement, allowing the military officer to temporarily retain command over his troops and gather sufficient forces to seize the central Plaza de Murillo for a few hours. There the rebel general delivered a confusing political speech, stating: “We are hearing the people’s outcry. Because for many years an elite has taken control of the country. The armed forces intend to restructure democracy.”

However, it is unlikely that the insurrection stemmed from a well-established plan to seize power, as the general had always previously supported Arce.

The president confronted Zúñiga at the palace entrance, urging him to withdraw, while thousands of Bolivians took to the streets to protest the coup. Zúñiga surrendered after a few hours due to the total lack of national and international support for his attempt to seize power. Even the right-wing leaders imprisoned for the 2019 coup, to whom Zúñiga promised freedom in case of victory, rejected the attempt.

Virtually all Latin American governments — including Javier Milei’s far-right executive in Argentina — condemned the military insurrection. The Organization of American States (OAS), which in 2019 favored the uprising against Morales by making unproven accusations of electoral fraud against the then president, also sided with Bolivian democracy this time. The White House called for “calm and moderation” in response to Zúñiga’s attempt. Unlike many other coups in Latin America, there is no sign of US involvement so far.

A Divided Left

The military rebellion has highlighted the deep divisions within the Movement for Socialism (MAS), the socialist-indigenous party that has governed the country since 2006, with the only interruption being Jeanine Áñez’s government (2019–2020). During its long hegemony, successive MAS administrations achieved record levels of economic growth, drastically reduced inequality and poverty, and opened the doors of power to the country’s indigenous majority for the first time in history, with Evo Morales as effective and symbolic head of the so-called process of change.

Áñez, who enjoyed the support of the conservative and liberal political establishment in her illegal seizure of power in 2019, managed the pandemic disastrously and had to call elections in October 2020. Luis Arce, who had been MAS’s economy minister for over a decade, replaced Morales as the presidential candidate and won with 55 percent of the vote. While Arce lacks the charisma of his mentor, he enjoyed a good reputation in his role as minister of economy.

Hostilities between the two leaders began when Arce expressed his intention to seek reelection in 2025. The rivalry has since escalated into all-out confrontation, with MAS parliamentarians divided between the two. The conflict is so severe that both sides have accused each other of links with drug trafficking. Some of Morales’s followers have even spread the theory that the military coup on June 26 was actually a “self-coup” orchestrated by Arce to increase his popularity — a rumor initiated by Zúñiga himself and echoed by the conservative opposition.

A central element of the current political crisis is Morales’s insistence on running for president again. The 2009 political constitution established a limit of two consecutive five-year terms. In 2016, a referendum was held to amend the constitution and remove the limit, but the no campaign won by a narrow margin. A decision by the constitutional court allowed the then president to run in 2019 anyway, but his electoral victory was erased by the military coup.

In 2023, another judicial decision reestablished the reelection ban, adding a prohibition on reelection to nonconsecutive terms, which is not established by the constitution. Morales denounced this as a politically motivated decision by a court under the influence of Arce, and he has not renounced his intention to run for election in 2025 again.

The MAS’s fracture has provoked a genuine institutional crisis, leading to the indefinite postponement of the judicial elections initially scheduled for 2023 and to a parliamentary deadlock that is hampering measures to address the country’s economic crisis. During Arce’s first two years in office, Bolivia had one of the lowest inflation rates in the Americas (just over 1 percent in 2022, despite the Ukraine war). However, the substantial foreign currency reserves accumulated during the years of economic boom, based on hydrocarbon exports, were already running out.

The impact of the pandemic and declining gas sales, combined with the slow take off of the lithium sector, are the main factors behind the current foreign currency shortage, jeopardizing the funding required for the substantial fuel subsidies that the Bolivian government provides. A potential cut in these subsidies, combined with rising inflation and the scarcity of certain products, would be a disastrous scenario for the Bolivian economy and the popularity of Arce’s government, which dropped to 18 percent in June.

An Uncertain Future

MAS is currently in disarray: it lacks a clear candidate, and a legal battle for control of the party’s name for the 2025 elections could ensue. The situation is so chaotic that even the regular organization of the legally mandated primaries for political parties to select their candidates is not guaranteed.

Zúñiga’s coup attempt might increase popular sympathy for Arce in the short term. However, it will not prompt the reconciliation that MAS and the entire country desperately need. The only good news for the Left is that its conservative rivals are also in poor shape.

The conservative and liberal political elite’s support for the 2019 civic-military coup ended up delegitimizing the opposition, which has never been able to build a solid and attractive alternative to MAS. Today Áñez and Luis Fernando Camacho, one of her main supporters, are imprisoned for their participation in the 2019 insurrection, and traditional parties have failed to build new leaderships capable of attracting majority social support.

The only certainty is that the era of economic growth and social progress that followed Evo Morales’s election in 2005 as Bolivia’s first indigenous president has come to an end. The Andean country, one of the poorest in South America, seems condemned to a long period of political instability and economic fragility, which might force the next government, regardless of its political orientation, to implement budget cuts. The future prospects appear bleak for a country that for many years inspired the region’s left for its ability to overcome neoliberalism and deliver justice to the indigenous majority after centuries of structural racism.