Bolivia crisis: a coup... or simple return to rule of law?

by Barnaby CHESTERMAN
Supporters of former Bolivia president Evo Morales have decried what they claim was a coup d'etat -- golpe de Estado in Spanish -- rather than a resignation

Even before Bolivia's Evo Morales quit the presidency in response to weeks of violent protest over his re-election, leftist allies were denouncing what they called a coup.

From Britain's opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to allies Cuba and Venezuela, the president's weekend departure has been characterized as an illegal power grab.

Accused of election fraud, he fled for Mexico after his resignation as right wing opposition senator Jeanine Anez prepared to declare herself acting president.

Stretching back to 1970s Chile and Argentina, Latin America has a dark history of right-wing coups that have left millions acutely suspicious of foreign influence and anti-democratic domestic forces.

The intervention of armed forces chief Williams Kaliman in suggesting Morales step down lends credence to the idea that Bolivia's power shift follows the pattern.

But Maria Teresa Zegada, a political scientist at San Simon University in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, says the events lack several elements that are typical of coups.

"It implies the substitution of one group in government for another," Zegada, who specializes in social movements, told AFP by telephone.

"In Bolivia's case, this hasn't happened."

While Anez has assumed the role of interim president, she has repeatedly stressed that she aims to hold new elections in short order.

The 52-year-old didn't stand in the October 20 general election and has given no indication she intends to put herself forward in any future poll.

- Restoring constitutionality -

Another feature of coups is that they "have to break the constitutional order," said Zegada.

"In this case it's the opposite... this interim government is trying to restore constitutionality."

Morales's standing in the election was itself a controversial issue as Bolivia's constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, while Morales was seeking a fourth.

He had lost a 2016 referendum in which he tried to remove term limits but a year later Bolivia's highest legal authority -- the constitutional court -- ruled against the constitution.

A coup also involves a power grab, usually by the military or an individual backed by the armed forces.

"What's the objective of this (interim) government? It's mission is basically to bring back peace to Bolivia and call elections as soon as possible," said Zegada.

Even the military itself is not acting as if it is involved in a coup, she added.

"The police and armed forces are there to bring peace to the streets," Zegada said.

Another controversy centers around the legitimacy of Anez's constitutional court-backed claim to be interim president.

She found herself next in line after the resignations of the only government figures more senior than her -- Morales, the vice-president, the Senate president and the lower house speaker.

Former Senate president and Morales loyalist Adriana Salvatierra has claimed she should take charge since she says her resignation was never formally accepted by the Senate.

"Salvatierra's reaction is a bit too late because she had already resigned verbally and sought refuge in an embassy," said Zegada.

- 'There was a coup' -

Movement for Socialism, the populist, indigenist party led by Morales, is attempting to wrest back control after a raft of politicians and governors followed Morales out the door -- many seeking refuge in foreign embassies from angry mobs.

Zegada, though, says it may be too little too late to claw back power.

"It's going to be difficult for the Movement for Socialism to change this situation," she said.

As for the accusations of a coup, for Zegada, that's nothing more than hot air.

"It's a diversionary tactic that the Movement for Socialism is using to gain media attention," she said.

According to one of Morales's main regional detractors, it's something that has been seen before.

"The word 'coup' is used a lot when the left loses," said Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

For Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States that audited the October 20 election, there was a coup -- just not the one Morales backers are claiming.

"Yes, there was a coup d'etat in Bolivia," he said. "It happened on October 20 when there was electoral fraud."

Supporters of former Bolivia president Evo Morales have decried what they claim was a coup d'etat -- golpe de Estado in Spanish -- rather than a resignation