The former president was a victim of his own refusal to hand over power

Broadly speaking, Evo Morales was a successful leader of Bolivia. A trade unionist with familial roots among the countrys indigenous peoples, he was first elected president in 2005 and was twice returned to office with substantial majorities. Morales is credited by the IMF with achieving a drastic reduction in poverty among farmers and coca growers and a societal revolution that, among other things, transformed the standing of Bolivias numerous ethnic minority groups.

A convinced socialist, Morales identified with the late Hugo Chvezs Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and with other leftwing leaders such as Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, Brazils former president. He championed a plurinational constitution that guaranteed equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, effectively ending the monopoly on power previously enjoyed by Bolivians of European descent. His time in office also saw a big increase in womens political participation.

To employ the past tense to describe Moraless presidency is to knowingly accept he is no longer Bolivias leader. Yet this is a reality Morales himself is unfortunately refusing to acknowledge. After weeks of street protests, political defections, a police mutiny and a critical decision by the army to withdraw its support, Morales voluntarily quit last Sunday and fled into exile in Mexico.

Having recovered his nerve he has reportedly said he quit the country because he feared for his life Morales now claims he was the victim of a coup and his resignation was not formalised. He has also described the properly constituted interim government led by Jeanine Aez, a rightwing opposition senator, as a dictatorship. This recalcitrant stance risks fanning violence between his supporters and security forces that claimed five more lives on Friday.

The old saw that all political careers, however brilliant, are doomed to end in failure is a cliche. But in Moraless case, it is sadly apposite. This implosion could have been avoided had he stuck by his previous conviction that presidents must observe term limits. Its true he was no longer as popular as he had been. Its true his rule had lately taken on an authoritarian tinge. There were signs of democratic backsliding and of an unattractive, Castro-esque personality cult.

Evo Moraless supporters attend a march in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photograph: Magali Druscovich/Reuters

But it was Moraless determination to grab a fourth consecutive term, and his alleged rigging of last months elections for that purpose, which precipitated his downfall. If he had stood down at the end of his term in January, he would have been widely honoured for his achievements and hailed as a champion of correct democratic practice in a part of the world notorious for the opposite.

As a respected, retired elder statesman, Morales could have sent a meaningful signal to others on the left, such as Nicaraguas Daniel Ortega and Venezuelas Nicols Maduro, who shamelessly cling to power by violent and unconstitutional means. Instead, he risks joining their ranks. By his latest actions, Morales has obscured the good he has done and created a personal tragedy. Here, again, is the familiar story of what happens when leaders outstay their welcome.

Morales has also, potentially, created a tragedy for Bolivia. The hazards are many. In the short term, current sporadic violence could easily escalate into something more nationally destabilising. Aezs administration, dominated by the opposition and ill-advisedly excluding indigenous leaders, may fail to hold new elections in a timely manner, as the constitution requires, while using the interregnum to unravel Moraless legacy and pursue him personally.

There is also the fraught possibility that Morales and his supporters will boycott new polls, dispute the winners legitimacy, and set up a rival administration, as happened in Venezuela. Moraless claim that he was ousted by an old-style military coup is not justified by the facts. Democracy is still working in Bolivia, just. Now he has a responsibility to ensure that remains the case and eschew any coup-making of his own.



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