Today Bolivia boasts a democratically elected government, described in its constitution as “a social Unitarian state” with a presidential system, in which the president is both head of state and head of government. This is a relatively recent system, however, as the first fully democratic elections took place in 1982, returning a civilian government to power after eighteen years of military rule.
The initial hints of military government began to manifest themselves after the 1951 elections, which swept the centrist Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) into power. A military coup initially blocked the party from taking office, causing widespread demonstrations from miners, who would eventually defeat the armed forces, in what is known as the April Revolution of 1952.
The government retained power for twelve years until it was overthrown by another military coup in 1964, led by Vice-president General Barrientos, also of the MNR. Barrientos died in a helicopter crash in 1969, and a series of coups and military juntas followed. In 1971 the right-wing military leader Hugo Banzer Suarez took power, with a presidency characterized by violence and human rights abuses. He conceded to popular demand for democratic elections in 1978 and was voted out of office, an outcome which he ignored until he was forced out in another coup led by Juan Pereda Asbun.
The final years of the seventies saw different factions competing against each other, with failed elections and inactivity in Congress. Between 1978 and 1982, Bolivia had ten different presidents. Brutality and corruption also rose substantially in this period, with arrests, disappearances, and murders all very common. Congress finally elected a civilian leader in 1982, Hernan Siles Zuazo (of the left-wing MIR party), whose presidency was overshadowed by disputes with regards to labor, government spending, and an increasingly uncontrollable inflation rate.
These problems made it impossible for Siles to govern effectively, so he resigned in 1985. Victor Paz Estenssoro of the MNR was returned to power (having been president before from 1951) and set up a wide program of reforms designed to reboot the economy. Between 1989 and 2005 the presidency changed hands seven times. Elections in 1989 were the first that were completely free of military intervention. No presidential candidate won a majority, leaving Congress to elect leftist Jaime Paz Zamora, leader of the MIR. The 1993 election went to Sanchez de Lozada of the center-aligned MNR, then Banzer Suarez of the center-right ADN in 1997, and Jorge Quiroga Ramirez, also of the ADN, in 2001.
All these presidents had to rely on aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Sanchez de Lozada won the presidency a second time in 2002, beating his opponent, Evo Morales. Lozada was forced to resign in 2003 after controversial proposals to export natural gas through Chile. He is succeeded by Carlos Mesa, whose term is equally controversial, so resigns in 2005. Evo Morales becomes Bolivia’s first indigenous president in the same year, swiftly placing all state energy under state control. Morales also became Bolivia’s first left-wing leader since the end of Jaime Paz Zamora’s presidency in 1993. Under Morales, Bolivia has witnessed extraordinary change, notably new emphasis placed on rights of the indigenous natives. A new constitution was promulgated in 2009, with the support of about sixty percent.
The new document allows for state control of natural resources, strict restrictions on foreign ownership, the separation of church and state, and the equalization of the status of indigenous legal systems to those of the state. Under Morales, Bolivia’s current annual GDP growth rate hovers at about five percent, among the highest in South America.
Power is shared between the executive (comprising the president and his cabinet), the legislative (made up of senators and deputies), and the judiciary. The Movement Towards Socialism party is currently the majority political party, followed by the right-wing PPB-CN. There are other political parties, although their support at the last election in 2009 accounted for five percent or less.The national flag of Bolivia, which came into being in 1951, is made up of three horizontal stripes.
From top to bottom these are red – which stands for bravery and blood of national heroes; yellow – representing Bolivia’s mineral resources; and green – meaning the fertility of the land. There is a coat of arms in the center of the flag.