November 11, 2019 / 9:56 PM / a month ago

Breakingviews - Bolivia’s president snared by his own success

People wave national flags during a protest against Bolivia's President Evo Morales in La Paz, Bolivia November 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Bolivian President Evo Morales, who stepped aside on Sunday, says he is the victim of a coup. He may actually be a victim of his own success. Reducing poverty helped keep him in office for almost 14 years. But a growing middle class may also be less willing to put up with the kind of vote-rigging claims that ended his reign.

Protests broke out shortly after the Oct. 20 presidential elections, when a preliminary vote count inexplicably stopped, and then restarted to show Morales suddenly had the over 10% margin of victory he needed to avoid a run-off. After the democracy watchdog Organization of American States released a report indicating that the results were likely bogus, the military put pressure on Morales to resign.

This turmoil may seem surprising when looking at Bolivia’s economic stats. Morales oversaw the most significant reduction in poverty of any South American country during his tenure, the longest of any active Latin American president. The middle class grew from 35% to 58% between 2005 and 2017, according to the National Institute of Statistics. And the country has enjoyed an average GDP growth of 4.9% during his time in office, according to the International Monetary Fund.

But the future for Bolivia’s economy is uncertain – even without political shenanigans. A commodity boom that helped create prosperity is over. The country has been running both a trade deficit and a fiscal deficit. An economic model that worked with higher fuel prices – selling natural gas and minerals and handing out the income through heavy government spending – is going to have to change.

Nor are Bolivians comfortably middle class by rich-world standards. Their GDP per capita is only around $3,500 per year, according to the IMF, still among the lowest in South America. People from emerging countries who have recently joined the middle class are what Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development has termed the “catalytic class.” This precarious group has been central in recent movements against political corruption, like those in Brazil, Turkey and Chile.

That sends a message for other emerging aspirant middle-class economies. The richer citizens get, the less tolerant they may be of a political leader’s malfeasance – even if said leader helped to bring about the positive change in the first place.

Breakingviews

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